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Hot Docs At Home Review: Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art

April 17, 2020

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto has come to be one of the biggest showcases of documentary cinema in the world, and it’s an event that, on a personal note, I look forward to attending every spring, as I have done since 2011.

But this year, the world has been thrown into chaos by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to forced lockdowns to stop the spread of the virus that originated in China and has spread throughout the world. Hot Docs is one of the many casualties of this, with the 2020 festival, which was scheduled to run from April 30th to May 10th, being cancelled in March just ten days away from its planned press conference to announce this year’s lineup.

This has forced programming director Shane Smith and his team to find new ways to get the works already selected for this year’s festival in front of audiences, which led to the creation of the Hot Docs At Home program, with a new documentary set to premiere every Thursday night from April 16th to May 28th on CBC TV and the Documentary Channel, while simultaneously being made available to stream for free on the CBC Gem app.

The series kicked off last night with the world premiere of Canadian filmmaker Barry Avrich’s pretty good new documentary Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art. The film focuses on a forgery scandal that rocked the art world and forced the Knoedler Gallery in New York to close its doors after 165 years, when the gallery was found to have purchased and sold roughly sixty fake paintings to the tune of over eighty million dollars, making it the largest art fraud in American history.

The fakes were sold to the gallery by a woman named Glafira Rosales, who claimed to have a stash of undiscovered paintings from the abstract expressionist movement of the mid-20th century by famed artists like Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollack and Robert Motherwell, which she told them she acquired from a mysterious source. Despite lacking the proper provenance, which would normally be required to show the history of ownership and should theoretically be able to link the paintings back to the artist, they were accepted into the Knoedler by the gallery’s former director Ann Freedman, after being examined by several experts who were duped into believing their authenticity.

At the centre of the dispute was a painting of two coloured blocks on top of each other that was sold to the Knoedler as a lost work by Rothko, and subsequently brought by private collector Domenico De Sole and his wife for eight million dollars, who then sued the gallery for damages. Avrich compiles interviews with most of the players involved to offer a fine overview of the case, culminating in a play-by-play of the trial. Loosely divided into chapters, the film’s talking heads approach is pretty straight forward, and there aren’t really any big revelations along the way, but editor Tiffany Beaudin keeps the story moving at a decent pace, and Ken Ng’s cinematography is bright and clean.

Freedman is in many ways the documentary’s central figure, and there is some question while watching the film as to how much she knew in regards to the paintings being fake, with some alleging that she was knowingly profiting off of the forgeries. One of the most interesting themes of Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art is how the illusion of authenticity was able to trick so many people, with collectors assuming the paintings in question to be real because the artist’s name was painted on the back, and the mere fact that they were hanging in a gallery gave credence to their legitimacy.

There is also the idea that many in the art world, including Freedman, wanted so badly for these paintings to be real, that they subconsciously overlooked the warning signs that suggested they were fakes in order to affirm their own biases, and experienced a sort of cognitive dissonance when the truth came to light. It’s an intriguing idea, as is the question of whether or not the fake paintings themselves still have artistic merit despite being sold under false pretences, as many admired their style before realizing they weren’t done by the artists whose work they emulated.

The appeal of Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art might seem limited to those already interested in the gallery world, and there are no clear cut heroes for an audience to latch onto. I would even go so far as to say that it’s a bit hard to find sympathetic players within the film, where the biggest victims are rich people who casually dropped millions of dollars on works of art that turned out to be fake. There are also a few little details near the end that I wish had been expanded upon, including the workshop in China where it’s suggested that many of these fake paintings have originated from.

For an even better documentary about fake art, I would recommend checking out last year’s highly disturbing There Are No Fakes, which pulled back the curtain on the real victims behind a Canadian forgery ring. But at a fairly brisk ninety minutes, Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art is a mostly enjoyable documentary that offers a fine overview of this art forgery scandal and the ensuing fallout, while also hinting at some deeper questions about the true nature of art. It’s worth a watch at home, especially for those of us feeling the loss of this year’s Hot Docs.

Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art is now available to stream on CBC Gem. The next Hot Docs At Home screening is 9/11 Kids, premiering on April 23rd at 8 PM EDT on CBC TV and CBC Gem, and at 9 PM EDT on Documentary Channel.

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