Film Reviews

Review: ‘There Are No Fakes’

Hot Docs 2019


There are No Fakes
(Canada, 114 min)
Dir. Jamie Kastner
Programme: Artscapes (World Premiere)

Jamie Kastner’s engaging, smartly modulated, new documentary, There Are No Fakes, includes a 1962 CBC television clip of the then thirtyish Anishinaabe artist, Norval Morrisseau, being interviewed by glamorous young June Callwood, on the occasion of his first major gallery show at Toronto’s Pollock Gallery.

The scene is a reminder of how long it has been since Morrisseau’s paintings and the Woodlands school he founded, have become imprinted on the popular imagination as emblematic of Canadian Indigenous art. Concerns about Morrisseau forgeries have risen over the years and, in 2005, two years before he died, Morrisseau established a committee, including art experts, to document all legitimate copies of his work.

That same year, Kevin Hearn, keyboard player for The Barenaked Ladies (If I had a Million Dollars), forked over $20,000 to a Yorkville dealer for a big pea-green Morrisseau canvas, featuring a swirling group of what appear to be saw-toothed birds, entitled Spirit Energy of Mother Earth. Five years later, when Hearn lent the painting to Art Gallery of Ontario show, a friend of Morrisseau’s complained Spirit Energy was a fake and AGO took it down.

Hearn tried to get his money back from the dealer, who insisted “there are no fakes”. Hearst sued and the results of that case, which was resolved last year, is part of Kastner’s film, though not the pay-off. What’s distinctive about There Are No Fakes is a shift in tone that takes place halfway through the film.

The first half is almost Fargo -esque with its motley collection of characters: the naïve pop star, the artist’s apprentice, a crew of art dealers who come across more like aluminum siding hustlers than art curators. A group of them, defending their businesses, insist that the “fake Morrisseau” claims are themselves fake news, using online blogs to attack Hearst and his lawyer, going so far as to claim the entire case is a racist campaign to tarnish Indigenous culture. Most of this is blatantly absurd, including perhaps the most quintessentially Canadian documentary moments I can recall: An angry woman art dealer, entering the courthouse, turns and barks at the film crew: “Keep your fucking camera off me.” (The chastened off-screen camera man responds: “Oh, sorry.”)

At this point in the film, it may cross your mind that somebody must be making these paintings and that somebody, unlike the rest of the profiteers in the chain, may be Indigenous. Soon, Kastner provides the answer and it’s a stunner. Following a lead, the film crew heads to Thunder Bay, where Kastner interviews a couple of courageous young people, and uncover a horror story of drug dealing, sexual abuse of minors, Indigenous exploitation and violence. Art fraud is just one of an army of crimes visited against Indigenous people.

Update: There Are No Fakes returns to Hot Docs Cinema on July 19.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!