The intent of documentaries is to lift the veil between something that is known and, hopefully, expose what remains hidden; nothing is more hidden than ourselves, or at least the dichotomy between the facade we present to others and what we know about ourselves internally. These documentaries, the kind that go into the mysteries of the individual, are the most fascinating to me and that’s probably why directors John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s “Finding Vivian Maier” has become one of my favorite documentaries of 2014.
When Vivian Maier died in 2009 her death went unnoticed. That is until Maloof bought a box of film negatives containing countless rare photographs of Chicago’s streets. As Maloof started investigating the photographer, Maier, he stumbled upon a woman that no one really knew but who has, posthumously, become a highly revered street photographer.
Finding Vivian Maier hews rather closely to “Dreams of a Life,” a 2011 documentary by Carol Morley that analyzed how a London woman’s death went unnoticed for several years as she rotted in her apartment. There’s something haunting and terrifying about how little attention we pay to individuals that we claim to know and love. Do you REALLY know your friends, close acquaintances? Vivian Maier is in the same boat; a woman who worked as a nanny, had no close friends, no family, and yet felt compelled to capture and document every facet of her life. The duality of Maier: the photographer and the person is explored, with one receiving recognition and the other remaining woefully unknown.
Vivian Maier is a fascinating individual, and the documentary celebrates that as much as it throws its hands in the air and says “We know as much as we ever will.” Maloof documents his finding of the box of negatives – causing a bit of envy among a few interview subjects for failing to get their hands on items now highly sought after – and the unexplainable desire to find out more about the shadowy woman behind the camera. There’s little difference between this and a biography, both can be stymied by a lack of information.
The various subjects interviewed all agree as much as they contradict each other, creating a mosaic of a woman who was both highly regimental and laid-back, who could be vicious and tenderhearted. No one answer is correct because all anyone has to go off of is their interpretations. Even the genealogist Maloof employs to discover Maier’s background hits several roadblocks, declaring this is a family that didn’t want to be found, nor did they have any interest in contacting each other (one of Maier’s aunts famously disinherited her for reasons known only to the aunt). Maloof also examines the countless items Maier saved, evidence of her slow descent into mental illness and hoarding. The woman saved everything – a gruesome discovery involves teeth of unknown origin in a film canister – and went so far as to record herself speaking and interviewing people at a local supermarket about politics. No one thing helps us understand Maier any better, but Maloof is adamant in his desire for us to hear as much of Maier as possible, to feel and remember her in every frame.
All that remains of Maier’s legacy are Maier’s evocative photographs, capturing a moment in time as well as the mundane moments. Maloof, at every opportunity without being overwhelming, compliments what’s being said on-screen by Maier’s photos. At one point an art historian compares Maier to Diane Arbus, a comparison that only strengthens the power of the material and the sadness that Maier went unnoticed. However, several interview subjects agree that fame would have only irritated Maier; but then why take the photos in the first place?
Maloof ends up traveling all the way to France, interviewing subjects from the small village Maier’s mother was from. He uncovers a cousin, as well as residents who start weeping at photos of their loved ones that they never knew existed. These weren’t just moments in time, but memories for people who didn’t even know they were worthy of being captured on-film, a bitter irony considering the MOMA didn’t believe Maier’s photos were worth owning. Maybe Maier’s own feelings of insignificance caused her to seek solace in spotlighting the downtrodden.
By the end, all the audience (as well as Maloof and his subjects) have are stories and the photos, neither one presenting a complete portrait of the artist herself. Finding Vivian Maier is frustrating, kind, mysterious, haunting, and heart-warming, possibly like Maier herself was. Maloof’s personal connection to the material, as well as the personal reminisces of the group assembled, present a woman as complex on the screen as she possibly was in reality. Either way, the documentary is a puzzling must-see that sticks with you.
Check out the latest Oscar Predictions for Best Documentary Feature and see where “Finding Vivian Maier” ranks!