A very strange yet oddly fascinating documentary about an extraordinary woman.

Finding Vivian Maier is one of the strangest documentaries I’ve seen in a very long time. Strange, however, does not mean it’s bad–the movie is one that surprised me with how much I was drawn into this highly unique woman’s life. And, it’s just debuted on Netflix in case you’d like to give it a try, as it’s amazingly original and worth your time.

When the documentary begins, a young and rather unusual young man, John Maloof, talks to the camera to explain how he came to know Vivian Maier. One day, a huge box full of photographs was being auctioned off and he bought it on a lark. It turned out that the pictures were amazingly good photographs of various everyday people taken in the 1950s. However, the pictures had a very artistic touch and it was obvious that the photographer was no novice—they had the eye of a wonderful artist. Armed only with a bit of information, John began researching for more on this woman. To his surprise, he learned that this Vivian Maier was a governess and maid–not a professional photographer. However, the story soon gets much stranger. It turns out that there is a storage unit filled with her belongings and Miss Maier has recently died. And, with no apparently last of kin, Maloof buys the contents of the unit. Inside are boxes and boxes and suitcase after suitcase filled with approximately 100,000 photos taken from 1951 up towards the present. And, in addition, are many, many roles of undeveloped film–and who knows what wonderful treasures are on these films?

The film, however, does not just talk about her photos or qualities as an artist. Instead, John goes on a journey to try to find people who knew Vivian in order to help him assemble her life story. What he finds is often contradictory, quite confusing and, above all, very strange. It seems that Vivian really had difficulty connecting with people and didn’t remain on her jobs very long. She also created a persona of a French woman–though it turns out she was born in New York! Additionally, aside from one family with which she worked for about six years, most of her jobs seem to have lasted only a few months or perhaps a year (this was the case with Phil Donahue’s family back about 1970–yes that Phil Donahue!) The reasons are not simple to explain without seeing the film, but could be boiled down to the fact that she was, as one person put it, a ‘damaged person’–with so much emotional baggage and weird behaviors that she was unable to really connect with others. She could not allow herself to be physically or emotionally touched by others and her photos are a possible and unusual way she connected with the world. What else do you learn? Well, see the film–as the story takes many unusual twists and turns. Overall, it’s less like a biography and more like a forensic case where some people are trying to re-create a dead person by interviewing all those who knew her during her odd life, as well as using Maier’s own photographs, film-footage and audio tapes. And, what’s really unusual is that most of the people she knew seemed to have no idea that she was a great artist…as she took this secret to her grave.

Fascinating…this is probably the word that best describes this film. You just have to see it to believe it, and although many might think twice about seeing a documentary or a film about a strange eccentric, I heartily recommend you give this movie a chance. You won’t regret it.

by Martin Hafer