Festivals           The Berlinale - The 64th Berlin International Film Festival: 6th-16th February 2014

Finding Vivian Maier
Interview with co-director John Maloof

Director John Maloof shooting interviewDirector John Maloof shooting interview

Every February the annual Berlin International Film Festival (or simply 'Berlinale') attempts to showcase the best of all aspects of contemporary World Cinema. Aside from the Official Competition section, it has many categories and awards which recognizes and promotes films otherwise rarely or never seen, as many get limited or no distribution afterwards.

This year, Diao Yinan's neo-noir Black Coal, Thin Ice (Bai Ri Yan Huo) took the Golden Bear in what was a triumphant festival for Chinese cinema. The China-Hong Kong film also won the Silver Bear for best actor for Liao Fan, while cinematographer Zeng Jian was awarded a Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution for the China-France entry Blind Massage (Tui Na). Wes Anderson's festival opener The Grand Budapest Hotel finished runner-up in the Competition awards with the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize.

The Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize went to Alain Resnais' Life of Riley (Aimer, boire et chanter), somewhat apt as a last recognition of the legendary French director who was to pass away later this year. Richard Linklater won the Silver Bear for best director for the instantly popular Boyhood, his film also winning the Screen International jury prize of the respected weekly film publication. Haru Kuroki won the Silver Bear for best actress in Japanese production The Little House (Chiisai Ouchi), while Dietrich and Anna Brüggemann earned the Silver Bear for best script with the German entry Stations of the Cross (Kreuzweg).

The Panorama section at the Berlinale is made up of both fictional and documentary films promoting new directions in art house cinema. The section includes new films by renowned directors, debut films and new discoveries with a slant on auteurship. The Panorama defines its mission as building bridges between artistic visions and commercial interests, the target audience being explicitly (but of course not exclusively) film buyers. All films in Berlin's Panorama section celebrate their world or European premiere. Alonso Ruizpalacios won the Best First Feature prize with Panorama entry Güeros, from Spain. This road trip is set against the backdrop of the Mexico City student riots in 1999 where two brothers and a friend join forces to search for a rock star whose talent, legend has it, once moved Bob Dylan to tears.

In documentaries section, the most resonating and memorable are those which include allowing their makers to go to places and look at people or events that would otherwise never be looked at in other circumstances. One of the films in the Panorama program this year which exemplified the hallmarks of a resonating documentary was the American production Finding Vivian Maier, co-produced, co-directed and co-written by director and photographer John Maloof along with television and film producer Charlie Siskel. The film is the directorial debut for both of them.

Vivian Maier was a mysterious nanny who for 40 years worked for families in Chicago's wealthy suburbs. Also a self-taught photographer, preferring a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera, she travelled the world dressed boldly in men's check shirts and took over 100,000 photographs, mainly in Chicago and New York, with an uncanny ability to get close to people from all walks of life, many featuring unintimidated children that was a nod to her work as a nanny. Her mostly undeveloped photographs lay undiscovered almost to the end of her lifetime, most of which she had to give away to cover her debts and much of it was hidden in storage lockers.

Maier's massive body of work would finally come to light in 2007 when it was discovered at a local thrift auction house on Chicago's Northwest Side by John Maloof who was there to research for a book on photography he was compiling on the area. Maloof's passion for acquiring items from an individual's private estate led him to this remarkable discovery of a box of undeveloped films and negatives that were found in an attic. From there, it would eventually impact the world over and is now changing the life of the awestruck man who brought her to public consciousness. Critics (including The New York Times) and galleries worldwide have since rallied behind Maier's work and she is posthumously considered among the 20th Century's greatest photographers, inspiring fresh interest in, and comparable to, other legendary street photographers like Robert Frank and Helen Levitt.

In Finding Vivian Maier her enigmatic private life and art are slowly revealed through never before seen photographs, films, and interviews with the many people who knew her in Chicago (and her childhood years spent partly in France due to her European background) and largely portray a reserved and introverted woman who nonetheless observed her environment with great attention. However, some recollections are mixed and hint at a darker side to her character. Vivian Maier was to die alone in Chicago in 2009 at the age of 83.

Finding Vivian Maier struck a chord in Berlin this year where it got Second Place in the Panorama Documentary Section Audience Award behind the winner The Circle (Der Kreis) from Switzerland, directed by Stefan Haupt. Both the best fiction film and the best documentary receive awards. Before Berlin it won the John Schlesinger Award for Outstanding First Feature at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. Subsequently it has been awarded at the Portland International Film Festival where it won the Audience Award for both Best Documentary Feature and Best New Director; Founders Prize for Best Documentary at the Traverse City Film Festival and Won (tied with The Overnighters by Jesse Moss) the Grand Jury Prize of the Documentary Competition at the Miami International Film Festival.

This interview took place with the film's co-director and principal photographer John Maloof during the Berlinale, in the middle of its five festival screenings when Maloof was engaged with promotional duties at the festival.

CL: How many hours of footage did you shoot?

JM: Altogether it was about 180 hours.

CL: How did you make the tough decisions in editing this all down?

JM: Well, we knew we would have to figure out what story we were going to tell and how we were going to tell it. The early part of the film was something that we talked around so once we got that figured out we got all the footage transcribed and we got very familiar with it. We then made a three and a half hour screen-out of all the material that was strong, making that arc, mainly done by our editor. Then we just chipped away, re-arranging just like any documentary editing, a lot of playing around with what you have within the structure of what you want and you keep doing this, editing layer upon layer with this and that.

CL: Even for a documentary it had a relatively short running time at 83 minutes, so it could easily have been 90-95 minutes.

JM: It could have been, yeah. We wanted to make it as powerful as possible without putting things in which don't really need to be in there. Of course, there's definitely another way to do the film too where you can make it long with a lot of information that some people find interesting but not compelling, but we wanted to go in the direction of making it for a broader audience and that's why we made it that way.

CL: One person said to me, and this is not a criticism, but one observation was that it seems more focused on Vivian Maier the person and less so her work. Was that deliberate in that people now have the choice whether to go and see her work?

JM: Well, there are two stories: The A Story and the B Story. The A story is finding out who Vivian Maier was and finding people who knew her. The B Story is her work going from nothing to high acclaim. So we do focus on that (the B Story) but we just don't go into the depths of analyzing it with many different academics. We have Joel Meyerowitz the (famous street photographer and co-) author of the book 'The History of Street Photography' (1994) and he is just as good as anybody to talk about her work. Also we had Mary Ellen Mark, the female street photographer who is very successful of course. So we had those two people, but at that point the museums didn't want to participate, and that's how that kind of unfolded. We just had to use what we had.

CL: Have you so far had any contact from the Tate Gallery in London or the Museum of Modern Art in New York?

JM: No! A lot of people ask the same question and I think that maybe it's because, though she is now successful, they are probably not even aware of it. There have been a lot of institutions that more or less have mediated the same answer to my offer of asking for help in putting on an exhibition but the Museum of Modern Art was the only one who gave me an official rejection letter.

CL: Vivian Maier died in 2009 and you bought her negatives in what year?

JM: In very late 2007.

CL: Do you now feel like "My God, I could have met her"?

JM: Yeah and I had so many questions about this at the time. Had I met her then I wouldn't have asked her the questions that I would wanted to have asked her now, so I may have been very regretful. At the time she inspired me to become a photographer because her work made me

want to pick up a camera. I was such an amateur and didn't know anything about Photography. I was starting from zero so I may have asked questions like "Hey, do you have any hints on Photography?" I would have just asked her for advice and that's it. I would have asked her "Why did you not show this to anybody?" and questions like that.

CL: Also, because of her advanced age it might have been difficult. Part of the enigma, which always makes it interesting, was slowly unraveled by the different people who knew her to piece together a jigsaw of sorts, whether that's accurate or not. Talking about the friends or relatives, were any of them reluctant, difficult, guarded, or any other anecdotes there?

JM: Not really! The only people that were guarded were the first family that she worked for in Chicago that ended up buying her an apartment and taking care of her. They were very friendly, they gave me all the footage from the storage locker and they gave me the interviews,

but after a while they thought about all the trust they had from Vivian and they respected Vivian and they said "You know, we thought about it and we would not like to be in the film to talk about her because we don't think she would want us to talk about her." So, I totally respected that.

CL: Also, the darker side of her character, apart from her private and reclusive side, the (alleged, in the film) treatment of the children when she was the nanny, did that come as a big shock to you and did that change your approach to the film?


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