Review: ‘Finding Vivian Maier: A Documentary’

Warning: this post contains spoilers about plot twists in this documentary.

Finding Vivian Maier

At the Roger Ebert movie review site, a film critic asks one of the moral questions at the heart of this film

When does creative ability and the desire to share a true artist’s eye trump what has to be considered an invasion of privacy?

The people who knew Vivian, mostly her employers and their children in her charge, seem to think she would not want her privacy invaded. The filmmaker searches for validation that sharing her work is acceptable and finds a letter indicating she planned to develop her prints. But the letter doesn’t clarify what she intended to do with them, nor why she didn’t follow through. One is left to assume that her deteriorating mental health and poverty played a role.

I think this is an important question, but I had a few more. If Vivian was abusive to the children in her care, is it morally justified to lift her up because of her art and in spite of her actions? Did the filmmakers probe any further into the allegations of what amounts to terrible conduct on her part with possible lasting repercussions? And should there be any financial compensation to those children who truly suffered for Vivian’s art – who should financially benefits from her art is momentarily addressed. They opened the can of worms when they wove these anecdotes into the film, but ultimately veered down a path of assessing Vivian as a tortured woman who was mentally ill due to some undisclosed trauma from her part.

Her photography is beautiful and breathtaking. I was struck by how deeply drawn I was into each image on the screen and can only imagine the true wonder of seeing them in person. She chronicled the human experience in all its complex wonder. And certainly her personal story lends itself to the narrative of what drove her to take all of these photos. The photographer experts in the movie wax rhapsodic about her innate talent and sense of light, balance, focus, etc. I certainly believe them. I’m just not sure that’s the heart of the matter.

I feel empathy and compassion for Vivian, but the hints about an abusive past didn’t justify alleged abuse of the children in her care. And while so much dithering was made about what Vivian would want, I can’t help but wonder what those children would want because they are still alive. And I kept wondering where the hell their parents were? One woman described her father propping up the floor to Vivian’s room with a steel beam because it was buckling – but he didn’t go into the room to see why (it was due to her hoarding tendencies.) That’s a very odd story.

I also found that her friends claims that Vivian would want privacy rang hollow in light of the fact that they participated in the documentary. I came away with the impression that in her later years, two of her charges paid for her living expenses but they were not interviewed. I was also struck by one woman’s comment that she worried about how Vivian would support herself in her later years, but no indication that she actually took action to help Vivian. Actually, most of what she said felt classist and rather privileged. At one point in the movie, a woman refers to her maid as “my girl” and jokes about the fact that they have a language barrier after several years.

Where’s the narrative on how exploiting women as domestic help shaped their lives and actions? And kept them impoverished so they couldn’t say develop 2000 rolls of film? Or fend for themselves in later years. Vivian’s life should have mattered as much as her mystery and her photographs do.

Much as Vivian’s photography captures street life, the documentary interviews with her former employers captures the entitlement of privileged life. I can’t help but wonder if we are romanticizing a woman as artist at the cost of what she was trying to say with her art? After all, she never asked her subjects if they wanted their stories to be captured by her camera.

‘Finding Vivian Maier’ is showing at The Harris Theater (Downtown) through May 8, 2014.

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