Finding Vivian Maier: Toronto Review

A sleekly assembled and intriguing project, if clearly a very commercial proposition.

Directors John Maloof and Charlie Siskel explore the life of one of America's greatest street photographers, who was a complete unknown until Maloof bought a box with her negatives.

TORONTO -- A full-time nanny who was also a completely unknown but extremely talented street photographer finally gets her posthumous due in the documentary Finding Vivian Maier.

Directed by John Maloof, the twenty-something who unearthed Maier’s work by chance and is now the chief curator of her work, and Charlie Siskel, who produced Bowling for Columbine among others, this sleekly assembled and intriguing if clearly very commercial proposition plays like Searching for Sugar Man but with almost instantly iconic photographs (and some moving images) instead of music.

Though it seems unlikely this non-fiction film will follow in the exact footsteps of Malik Bendjelloul’s Oscar-winning success -- music lovers are probably more vocal and numerous than photography nuts and Maier lacks that film's superlative camerawork and sound -- Sundance Selects nonetheless has a pretty good shot at turning this combination of incredible talent and true story into a hit niche title.

PHOTOS: The Scene at the Toronto Film Festival 2013

In 2007, Maloof bought a box of negatives at an auction for $380. A couple of years later, he finally started looking at what he had bought and realized that the work was not only of an exceptional quality but also quantity. After recuperating the other boxes from the original auction, Maloof know has an archive of over 100,000 photos in various forms (prints, negatives and undeveloped rolls that are slowly being developed).

The auction house told Maloof that his box belonged to one Vivian Maier but Google yielded exactly zero results for that name, as Maloof himself explains in what’s set up as a conventional talking-head segment but in reality comes down to Maloof conducting, directing and shooting an interview with himself, as he’s also the film’s co-director, co-writer and cinematographer as well as its most important interviewee. (Since he’s also the rights holder of the photos because Maier had no next-of-kin, it’s clearly in Maloof's best interest that her story and pictures circulate as widely as possible, though the film seems unsure how to address Maloof's unusual position so instead mostly ignores it.)

The most startling early revelation is no doubt that she was a professional nanny and that no one around her was aware she was a world-class photographer. She seems to have made no attempt to ever show her exceptional street pictures of children and adults -- most of them shot in black-and-white during the 1950s and 1960s with a Rolleiflex camera -- to magazines, galleries or even acquaintances (there's a clear sense she didn't have a lot of friends). Maier had a particular eye for not only composition but also the absurdities of life, with her photos reminiscent of the best work of American big-city shutterbugs like Weegee, Robert Frank and Diane Arbus.

PHOTOS: The Scene at the Toronto Film Festival 2013

Parents and children of the families for whom she worked -- including talk-show host Phil Donahue -- are interviewed and their recollections suggest a woman who was very private and a hoarder. Indeed, Maloof managed to retrieve a lot of her belongings after her death, in 2009, including not only negatives but also clothes, tapes, films and papers such as letters, bills, uncashed tax checks and receipts that then further helped his research (one assumes that Maloof’s amateur sleuthing began before this film started shooting, though the exact timeframe is murky).

As with many very private people, rumors about Maier thrived, including those about her place of birth (did she have a fake French accent?) and the extent of her “eccentricity” and “dark side” that’s mentioned by several interviewees. Though editor Aaron Wickenden generally manages to shape the material into a logical and flowing account, there are some points that could use elucidation, including Maier’s direct connection to France (via her mother?). And the film's most important question -- why did she never show her exceptional work to anyone? -- remains unanswered since the only person that could answer that question is the late Maier herself.

The film looks fine for a digitally shot production and is greatly enhanced by the countless photos and some audio and film footage from Maier herself. J. Ralph’s score is classical in all meanings of the word.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (TIFF Docs)

Production companies:
Writer-Directors: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel
Producers: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel
Associate producers: Anthony Rydzon, Lars Oxfeldt Mortensen
Director of photography: John Maloof
Music: J. Ralph
Editor: Aaron Wickenden
Sales: HanWay Films
No rating, 84 minutes.