Secret life’s work of one woman sparks fascinating investigation. Haunting.
Often the best documentary films are those, which take on a subject you know absolutely nothing about and then gradually tease out the detail with an almost detective-like precision. If the complex issues unfurled also leave you unsure as to where you stand on what you’ve been shown, all the better.
John Maloof’s fascinating Finding Vivian Maier does both with considerable flair, as he investigate the woman in question, a mysterious and reclusive New York and Chicago-based nanny whose vast collection of striking street photography he accidentally uncovered in a junk auction one day, snapping up the negatives for $380, sparking his own somewhat obsessive quest to discover who she was
Ably assisted by co-director and regular Michael Moore Collaborator Charlie Siskel, the sleekly laid out investigation hit sits first stumbling block when Googling Maier’s name revealed absolutely nothing, requiring good old-fashion sleuthing instead, trawling through old letter and receipts, hitting the streets to ask those who may have known her what exactly Maier’s story was.
The doco then moves through several stages: who is this odd character? Why didn’t she share her incredible talent with the world, which several experts compare to the likes of Diane Arbus and Robert Frank. An air of mystery arrives when it becomes clear we may not know her true name of even nationality, and there’s a worrying suggestion that she may have been physically abusive towards the children she cared for.
While it’s true that Maloof now owns the rights to Maier’s work, with no next of kin to lay claim to her life’s work, and that he stands to make a good deal of money from her stunning photography collection, the doco never feels overtly commercial in its goal. Instead, it’s a riveting mystery that’s visually rich, thanks to Maier’s incredible talent, and there’s a haunting melancholy surrounding her life and what might have possibly been. Without Maier, some of the answers are not forthcoming, and that’s what makes the film all the more engaging. In a year of incredibly strong docos, this is one of the most exciting and leaves an indelible image in my mind.
Stephen A Russell