On the dilem­mas fac­ing an eth­i­cal film­maker

Our critic talks to Amir Bar-Lev, who faced tough moral ques­tions over his film about a child and a pos­si­ble art fraud

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS -

AMIR BAR Lev’s first fea­ture, Fighter, fol­lowed two Czech Holo­caust sur­vivors on an emo­tional road trip back to Terezin. It was named 2000’s top doc­u­men­tary by Newsweek and won six in­ter­na­tional awards.

His sec­ond, My Kid Could Paint That, is equally im­pres­sive. It tells the story of four-year-old “artis­tic prodigy” Maria Olm­stead whose paint­ings were sold for a to­tal of over £150,000 be­fore the ques­tions were raised about whether the paint­ings were ac­tu­ally her work. In do­ing so, Bar-Lev be­came an in­te­gral part of the story him­self.

“Ev­ery doc­u­men­tary is go­ing to re­flect the ethics of the per­son mak­ing the film,” he says. “There are peo­ple who are dis­ap­pointed be­cause, at the end of the film, I don’t de­liver the knock­out punch. Ba­si­cally, in or­der for me to find out con­clu­sively whether Marla did those paint­ings, I would have ei­ther to have pulled her aside and said: ‘Fess up, is your dad a liar?’, or sneak the paint­ings off to some fin­ger­print ex­pert when the par­ents weren’t look­ing, or take them up on their of­fer to sub­ject them­selves to a poly­graph.

“I told peo­ple if I did one of those three things, or some­thing else I hadn’t thought of, I’d cease to be a hu­mane per­son. And so the film is about eth­i­cal choices and ul­ti­mately, morally, it’s more im­por­tant to re­main an eth­i­cal per­son that it is to get to the bot­tom of whether or not she’s do­ing those paint­ings.”

The 35-year-old Cal­i­for­nian — his grand­par­ents were Zion­ist pi­o­neers — be­gan his me­dia ca­reer as a teenager in Berke­ley work­ing as a light-show artist for, among oth­ers, The Grate­ful Dead. He grad­u­ated from Brown Univer­sity in 1994 with, sin­gu­larly, dou­ble ma­jors in film and re­li­gious stud­ies.

He says he is con­tin­u­ally amazed by the con­nec­tions be­tween re­li­gion and movies. “What the two things share is mythol­ogy. A good movie is a well-told myth. It’s al­most like a shaman or a rabbi de­liv­ers a fa­ble that’s uni­ver­sal. I think that what you are do­ing when you watch a doc­u­men­tary is watch­ing a fa­ble that re­flects the jour­ney of a film­maker through an eth­i­cal prob­lem.”

Bar-Lev: film­mak­ers are “like rab­bis”

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