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Exploiting Vivian Maier: When Do Docs Invade Privacy?

Exploiting Vivian Maier: When Do Docs Invade Privacy?

Don’t get me wrong: I like “Finding Vivian Maier,” the new documentary I wrote about in Indiewire for my new column “Reality Checks.” And by raising the many issues that are inherent in the film, I don’t mean to simply criticize the movie: I only mean to highlight what’s already there. As I wrote today: The film raises many questions pertinent to all documentarians: When is it “appropriate to expose the lives and works of others who would rather be left alone? What responsibilities do filmmakers have when they speak on behalf of those who have chosen not to speak publicly for themselves? When should filmmakers keep pressing on the private life of an individual and when should they stand back?” 

The case of Vivian Maier so pointedly brings up these questions because she was so private. The filmmakers, in fact, spend a lot of time establishing this fact. It is one of the key ways that they define her. So, then, are the filmmakers aware that in doing so they are pushing this issue front and center: Are they acknowledging the fact that their film may be an invasion of Maier’s privacy? 

Coincidentally, I happen to be teaching a class on the history and issues of documentary film, and last week, we were looking at Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch’s cinema verite classic, “Chronicle of a Summer.” In that film, the filmmakers go out of their way at every step of the process to include their subjects in the process of their film–to attempt to, in effect, break down the unfair power discrepancy that exists between those behind the camera and those in front of it. Of course, we are a long way off from the 1960s paradigms of Cinema Verite and Direct Cinema, but I do think Morin and Rouch touched on some very key ethical issues when it comes to documentary films that still resonates very much to this day.

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