Finding Vivian Maier (2013)
Dirs: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel
Academy Award Nomination: Documentary Feature
This is like the greatest ever episode of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’
When a collector (John Maloof), bought a box full of photographs from an auction but discovered that the photographer, Vivian Maier, wasn’t famous despite the work seeming professional and being extensive, he shared some online. The pictures went viral, greatly appreciated by those who saw the high standard of the work, and this fuelled his search into who the woman was behind the camera, discovering a mysterious nanny with a private passion.
This is the second of this years Oscar nominated feature documentaries I’ve seen so far, and in my opinion easily the best. ‘CitizenFour’ was close to the person it was documenting, yet didn’t ask many tough questions and failed to give opposing views. Vivian Maier cannot be interviewed as she was already dead, so instead we get recollections from people who knew her, as well as expert voices of photographers about her work and even a genealogist about her roots. All of the people featured ask the difficult questions, and then proceed to answer them as best they all can from their individual limited knowledge, often with conflicting details which just add to the mystery.
John Maloof, who made the remarkable discovery of Maier’s work, joined forces with Charlie Siskel who has experience of working with Michael Moore and others in the documentary genre. That experience pays off in abundance, as this documentary is fully engaging, and it really covers the subject from every angle available. The manner in which this is made seems to be the best way to possibly find out about this person, I can’t see what they could have done better to find out about her. She was a brilliant mystery, and the beautiful photography is ideal for this sort of film, it adds natural visuals that so many documentary subjects could be lacking. The film beautifully uses Maier’s own work to illustrate what people recount about her, making extensive use of her photography including self portraits, her video footage which is lovely and even her own words from tape recordings.
Vivian Maier was a fascinating person, mysterious, secretive, and a talented artist. As we hear about her a picture starts to emerge, albeit with substantial parts missing and many hazy aspects are unanswerable. Thankfully a letter is found that helps to bring the documentary to a satisfying conclusion, answering one of the most difficult questions raised in the whole documentary, as to whether it’s right to print her photos that she was so private about, giving guidance trough her own written words. This also helps to make the film a very rewarding watch, though not a biopic or a deep analysis of her work, it feels suitably complete.
Rather than just being a portrait of an interesting woman and her impressive work, this documentary causes the viewer to think much deeper, about their friendships, and what they’ll leave behind when they’re gone. Vivian Maier had no husband, no children, no particularly close friends, yet she’ll now be remembered thanks to her belongings being found by someone who thankfully appreciated their true value. One of the end results is this, a superb documentary that’s probably one of the best I’ve ever seen.