Amir Bar-Lev – an American documentary filmmaker with Czech influences

Amir Bar-Lev, photo: Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary

Amir Bar-Lev first presented his documentary Fighter – a film that portrays the well-known Czech émigrés Jan Wiener and Arnošt Lustig – at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in 2008. This year, the American documentary filmmaker, whose second film My Kid Could Paint That got caught up in a media controversy, came back to the festival as president of the documentary competition jury. He speaks about what first sparked his interest film and documentaries, what his role as a jury president entails, and when he first visited the Czech Republic.

Amir Bar-Lev,  photo: Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary
“I studied film as an undergraduate and I did my initial program in the United States, but I did an exchange program at FAMU, the Prague Film Academy, in 1993, and it was there that I met the subjects of my first film, Arnošt Lustig and Jan Wiener.”

In 2000, your documentary Fighter, about those two, got a special jury mention here at the Karlovy Vary festival, and since then, you’ve directed another documentary, my kid could paint that. What is it that fascinates you about the documentary genre?

“I think that genre doesn’t fascinate me as much as certain subjects that I have been lucky enough to be able to tell stories about. In the case of Jan and Arnošt, we had these two larger-than-life personalities, dear friends, but very different from one another, and in the end, it becomes a story about stories themselves. It is a story of two friends battling over memory and history. And in my second film, we had this four-year-old painter, who was selling 25,000 Dollar paintings, which in itself is very interesting, and then it became alleged that her father was secretly making the paintings.

“So again, it became a story about stories, because it became an interrogation of my relationship with them, as a documentary filmmaker, and the role of the press in celebrating this little girl, who maybe should not have been a celebrity, but her parents and all of us were sort of culpable for putting on this pedestal. So I am interested in stories about stories most of the time, and a lot of the way I think is shaped by things that I learned here in the Czech Republic, and also, I became a fan of Czech literature and cinema. And Kafka, Hrabal and Kundera, they all have a way of peaking behind the curtain of stories, and I learned that in part in the Czech Republic.”

You mentioned that during the filming of My Kid Could Paint That, certain allegations emerged regarding the authenticity of those paintings. How did that change the final film?

“I think when you make documentaries; you have to learn how to improvise. And improvising does not just mean observe what happens, be a fly on the wall and take in everything that is happening, improvise means you have an idea of where you are going, but be willing to modify that as reality presents itself and surprises. So I have had to do in all films, maybe everybody does.

“I learned a lot about improvisation from my time as a fan of the Grateful Dead. The greatest improviser of all times in rock and roll was maybe Jerry Garcia, and you learn from people like that, musicians, filmmakers and writers, that it is a mistake to just impose a narrative on things, you have to be open to gibing and receiving in terms of the story.”

How much time would you typically spend with the subjects of your documentaries?

“Well, I have made three films, and each took two to three years to make. It does not happen quickly. It’s a good question, and it is especially poignant for me right now, having just watched Fighter for the first time in a while, and both of its subjects passed away last year. So it’s an interesting thing that these documentaries freeze time in a way, and of course, time itself doesn’t really stop. And you capture people in one moment of their life, and they go on and live and eventually die. And I’m almost forty, that was my first film. And this was the first experience I have had watching a film in which the people are no longer with us. IT was especially moving.”

And how close did you get to Arnošt Lustig and Jan Wiener, and also to the family of the young painter, Marla Olmsted?

Arnošt Lustig
“Those are very different situations. Arnošt and Jan remain in my mind and some of the most important figures I have ever been exposed to. And watching the film today, I kept thinking, it has been ten years since that film was made, and so many of these lessons I have tried to aspire to in life, with varying degrees of success. But you have to count yourself very lucky to meet people like that, especially when you are young.

“The Olmsted family I have a more complicated relationship with. But what I like about documentaries is that making them brings up a lot of ethical questions, and challenges you about what your values are. There is a lot of artifice around documentary filmmaking; it is a kind of smoke-and-mirrors thing. And so that always presents an interesting challenge in terms of your relationship to the subjects. Because everybody wants to see themselves one way, but then you may be showing them a different way. And then they also know that a year passed, and you turned it into a short amount of time, and so there is a certain amount of imposing a story, whether you are a documentary filmmaker or any kind of journalist and that makes it a complicated relationship on whom you’ve imposed the story.”

You are now here as the chairman of the documentary jury. How difficult do you find it to pass judgment on other people’s work?

“Very easy. Just by virtue of showing your film here, you have already won. The programming at this festival is fantastic. WE have only seen one day of films, but I am really impressed and looking forward to seeing more. And winning is great, it is not a race. If you don’t get a prize, it doesn’t mean you have lost. So I think you shouldn’t pay attention too much to the competition aspect of it all.”

In your role as the documentary jury president, do you think that there are different factors for judging documentaries as opposed to feature films?

“What is funny is that documentaries always want to seem more like fiction films, and fiction films always want to seem more like documentaries. When you say: That fiction film was so lifelike, it felt like a documentary, that is a compliment. But if you make a documentary film you borrow a lot of the tropes of narrative filmmaking.

“I think it is wrong for people to think that one or the other is more real. They are both different modes of filmmaking and story telling. And it is sort of almost patronizing to think that documentaries are the truth, or somehow more real. It is only real in so far as it taps into eternal truths that narrative films and other art forms tap into.”

You have visited this festival several times and also been a guest at numerous other festivals. What would you say makes Karlovy Vary’s festival special?

“I am glad you ask, because I feel very privileged to have been coming back to this festival for quite some time. I have seen it through different eyes: The eyes of a young person partying all night, even before I had a film here. Then the eyes of a person with a film here.

“And now as a juror, I brought my daughter and wife, and walking here with them and seeing all these corners where I drunkenly greeted the sunrise with my friends by singing Tom Waits, it is really a great feeling. It is especially poignant at this festival, because this festival does a wonderful job of creating a very genuine and meaningful experience for people who come from all walks of life.

“It is a world class festival with celebrities and amazing parties and gala presentations, yet it also has a sense of Woodstock. If you come here in the morning, and see all these Czech students who have been sleeping in sleeping bags in the rain, underneath the ramp and things like that. The fact that those two experiences, and so many in between, coexist in one festival is very, very admirable and that is unique to Karlovy Vary.

Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
“You have a lot of festivals that are very egalitarian, and you have a lot festivals that are very upper-class, but very few that do both. And Karlovy Vary does it best, and Karel Och, the director, is a guy who gets that spirit and who doesn’t take celebrity too seriously. He is a cinephile. And that is what this festival has always been about. I always see great films here. And yesterday was our first film as a jury, and we saw fantastic movies. And I have ten more days of that, so I am looking forward to that.”

And what are your plans for after the festival?

“I am directing my first fiction feature, it is about the acid trip in which Jerry Garcia’s first marriage falls apart and the Grateful Dead are born, and I have a couple of other projects that I am working on.”