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
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”