Binghamton, New York, toddler Marla Olmstead was hailed as an abstract-painting prodigy, then attacked as a fraud, all within six heady months in 2004–2005 — she’d gone from art-world darling to media scandal before her sixth birthday. Within days of Marla’s appearance in the Times, filmmaker Ami Bar-Lev dove into the scrum of TV cameras and gained the family’s trust. But after 60 Minutes’ hidden cameras captured Marla’s father instructing her how to paint, he too began to have doubts about their authenticity and about his own role in the publicity process. His skeptical documentary about Marla and how her story unfolded — My Kid Could Paint That — generated almost as much hype in Park City as its subject did two years ago. It sold in the wee hours of Sunday morning for a reported $1.85 million. We spoke to Bar-Lev in Park City.
Marla’s family opted not to come to Sundance, instead sending a statement saying they felt “betrayed” by the movie. That must have been tough.
It’s their reputation on the line, and it hurts me that the film doesn’t knock a home run in exonerating them. But I also think that more people think the Olmsteads are completely innocent than they realize. They haven’t been around the audiences. A lot of people are reading the film that way.
When did you grow skeptical? It was the 60 Minutes piece, right?
The best way to describe it is baffled. It didn’t seem possible that these people were behind some kind of hoax. It didn’t jibe with my sense of their character. I had already shot Marla painting. I had to go back and look at that footage and confront the possibility that things had been going on right under my nose that I had been unable or unwilling to see.
How did the deal go down?
It’s unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of. We were up until five in the morning in this condo, and there were all these lawyers and phone calls and agents. We would step out for meetings, and the only available private space would be a bathroom. It was crazy.
Did you feel like you knew what was going on?
I’d like to say I was more involved in brokering the deal, but I really let the experts do their thing. I was there, but I was really tired. I just sat there and kind of let it happen around me. —Sam Adams