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USA 2013
Directed by
John Maloof / Charlie Siskel
84 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Chris Thompson
4.5 stars

Finding Vivian Maier

Synopsis: Filmmaker, photographer and historian, John Maloof, sets out to solve the mystery of who made the hundreds of thousands of photographs, films and recordings he acquires at a Chicago auction house. When he discovers the name Vivian Maier amongst the contents of the many boxes he finds himself on the trail of an enigmatic nanny who may just turn out to be one of the 20th century's greatest street photographers. But his search uncovers more than just her identity, as revealed through his dozens of interviews with those who thought they knew her.

It’s hard not to see an element of destiny in the circumstances that bring this unusual and fascinating story to the screen. As beautiful and captivating as Vivian Maier’s photographs are, it is clear that she made little or no effort to bring them to the attention of the world and that, without the good fortune of John Maloof being on the hunt for some old images of Chicago, they may have remained in the boxes and suitcases and storage units where they’d been for many years or, worse, found their way to landfill. But there’s another element of fate at work here and that’s to do with Maloof being a curious soul who was inspired to act upon what he found in Maier’s legacy. Early on, he wonders to us what kind of obsession was at work in Maier’s mind that led her to take so many photographs and to hoard them away along with her eclectic collections of all sorts of detritus from her mysterious life.  Fortunately It’s probably the same kind of obsession that drove Maloof to go to such extremes to uncover her story.

This is such a wonderful film, beautifully shot by Maloof who doubles as cinematographer, and with a marvellously evocative soundtrack by J. Ralph. It’s plotted like a mystery drawing us into the search for the truth behind this strange woman as we share the recollections of the children she nannied, now all grown up with memories that paint a somewhat contradictory picture of Maier. And, as with any good mystery, the story takes an unexpected and decidedly dark turn as we shift our focus away from the power of her remarkable photographs and start to delve more into the life of the woman herself. As the film takes us down these darker paths, I was reminded of Andrew Jarecki’s 2003 doco, Capturing The Friedmans, and the way a twist of fate can uncover a compelling story that has lain dormant for a long time. The structure of its narrative is sublime as it whets our appetite to know the answers to the questions it raises, but holds off on revealing what it knows until exactly the right moment.

Almost as interesting as the mystery at the heart of this film are the politics that play out in the story’s contemporary background as Maloof endeavours to bring Maier’s 20th century imagery to a 21st century audience. The facts that she was a nanny and not a professional photographer and that prior to her death in 2009 she’d made no effort to curate or exhibit the work herself seems in the eyes of the art world to count against the power and importance of the photographs themselves. Thankfully, the fates have conspired to ensure that both the photographs and Vivian Maier’s story have now seen the light of day.




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