Sundance: A Doc Director’s Dilemma

When should a documentary filmmaker, in the interest of fairness to his subjects, realize his project just isn’t working out journalistically and needs to be scrubbed? In this era of essayist, first-person documentaries — when a project can be justified, or should I say salvaged, by making the story about the nature of the filmmaker’s search rather than the results of it — it’s a question that comes up frequently. That question very much is part of Amir Bar-Lev’s argument-starting My Kid Could Paint That, which is in the Sundance Film Festival’s Documentary Film Competition. I saw it Thursday.

When Bar-Lev heard about 4-year-old Marla Olmstead, a girl from Binghamton, N.Y., whose vividly colorful abstract paintings sell to collectors for thousands of dollars, he got the parents’ permission to make a film on the family. He thought, quite correctly, it raised all sorts of interesting questions about the nature of modern art and the difficulty many people have judging what’s good or bad when looking at abstract-expressionist canvases.

But several months into his story, Bar-Lev was shaken when CBS’s 60 Minutes reported that Marla’s father might have coached and/or guided her work (perhaps unintentionally), which the family denies. So Bar-Lev tells the Olmsteads that he needs footage of Marla painting start-to-finish to convince him one way or the other. That turns out to be easier said than done. And his film becomes as much about him wrestling with his doubts about his project as it is about art appreciation.

The director’s dilemma is that, if he can’t prove that Marla is solely responsible for her work, what is his film’s purpose? CBS has already raised the doubts. For him to do the same not only risks redundancy but also smacks of badgering the family. And is he just looking for the “documentary gold” — as Mrs. Olmstead calls it on camera — of forcing them into an emotional outburst that he can film?

Suffice to say Bar-Lev finished his film. Sony Pictures Classics has purchased it at Sundance for just under $2 million, according to some reports. (Variety reported $1 million.) But did he do the right thing ethically?

— Steven Rosen

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