You know those movies where you go in expecting one thing and you come out with something entirely different? I have a feeling Exit Through the Giftshop is gonna be another one of those movies, but Catfish (which I’ve seen) was the same way. Is it documentaries doing this now? Baiting us with a human interest story, or something that sounds fascinating enough–for instance, a guy meets a girl he met on Facebook or a four year old is hailed as an abstract genius–to serve us something that is entirely different. I simultaneously need to say where this film goes and cannot, for it’s best seen as a surprise. If you’re interested in Marla Olmstead, turn off the film before they air the 60 Minutes story. That is your complete biography of Marla as a painter until that time.
But if, like me, you want to follow the white rabbit, keep watching. And, in the words of Morpheus, it will “show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes”. The truth is so mind-bogglingly vast and incomprehensible that I can barely put it into words. Which is a shame, as that’s what I’m trying to do here. What I saw was a deconstruction of the very concept of documentary filmmaking altogether. Can you really make a movie that objectively displays a story that happens in reality as it would if there weren’t a camera crew standing in your living room, taping what you say? What truth comes through the lens; the truth of the subjects or the truths of the people editing the collected footage? Is the objective documentary a myth?
The story begins, innocuously enough, with the director playing with Marla and her brother Zane on their front porch. He interviews the family, and has them talk about their daughter. Marla is a bright enough kid, but she is most definitely four. She bowls around the house like any four year old, happy and always willing to talk about anything. The family are normal people, working at a food factory and as a dental assistant. The dad is somewhat artistically inclined, and one day when he’s painting, Marla asks if she can join in. So he lets her, and she goes off and away. Her paintings just start flowing out. And they’re pretty good. Modern art has never been my thing. But if I were to have paintings, they would be Warhols and Pollacks, just for the attitude.
And for a while, it’s the happy story of Marla that you’d expect this movie to be. They interview the first gallery owner to look at her work and see something unique. He does a showing of her work in his gallery, and it sells out. Every painting gone. They interview the reporter who first wrote about them in the local newspaper as a human interest story. Her article snowballs into local coverage. The local coverage turns into national coverage. And within a year, the national coverage of this one little girl, always painting, has become a story on 60 Minutes. The story on 60 Minutes acts as an expose, alleging that she could never have painted these works and that her father must be directing her.
Here’s where things get a little weird. The movie itself is being made by a documentary crew, who are in this house, filming these people. They’ve always been there. The director is in the opening sequence. And after they tell the story of the fallout of all the bad press this one innocent family got because of the 60 Minutes story, the documentary turns into something entirely different to what it’s been so far. The story isn’t about Marla or her paintings. It never has been. The story of My Kid Could Paint That is about the story around Marla and the media circus her life has inspired–which the documentary is a large part of. The documentary is itself the subject of the documentary, its production being the next step in the media’s exploitation of one little girl, painting.
The director is either very brave or very stupid. I’ve kept myself from saying his name here intentionally. The director here is not the man he is and he’s not making a story about Marla Olmstead. He’s here to expose the entire practice of making documentaries. A documentary is never objective. The subjects, at this point in the story, turn on the director. Everyone in every interview tells him that his movie is yet another artifice, another construction, another story built around the story of a little girl, painting. The gallery owner asks him what he thinks about all of this, and what the hell he’s trying to do in making this movie. The reporter accuses him of being as exploitative of Marla as 60 Minutes were, and of caring about her exactly as much as Charlie Rose did. The parents go from trusting him with their life, to portray it objectively, to vilifying his presence in their home. He has become another outsider, as trusted as 60 Minutes were after their story aired.
This is the unpleasant truth behind all documentaries. The filmmaker is always there. There are times in this movie where the director is on camera, and heard asking questions of the people he’s interviewing. This is the case in every documentary–the difference here being that this time, you’re seeing it. You’re seeing the real person who is telling the story and you’re feeling his biases. His choice of clips and his questions are what shape the truth behind this movie, and that’s true in all documentary filmmaking. He has not inserted himself into the story. It’s the other movies that have removed the directors in post-production. He’s shown you that he and any person claiming to tell the objective truth in their movie–they’re all charlatans, exploiting a story they’ve gathered around to make a movie that expresses whatever it wants to express.
Because, after all, at the end of this movie, whose version of events have you seen? You’ve still seen his version of the story, and his version paints him as the villain, as an unwanted intruder. Because his movie is about how all documentaries are experiments in bias, not just his. Is Marla’s art real, or is it fake? It was never about her. It was about the media around her. She will forever be one little girl, painting. FOUR STARS