Charlotte Film Lab brings 'Finding Vivian Maier' to Charlotte

Since 1982, the Charlotte Film Society has been screening small foreign and indie movies that wouldn’t otherwise make it to the Queen City.

Its popular Saturday Night Cine Club has a permanent home one night a month at Theatre Charlotte in Myers Park and has been known to sell out. Its Back Alley Film Series also has a regular home for its monthly screenings of cult classics, horror and grind-house films – at Carolina Cinemas Charlotte on Monroe Road.

So why did the CFS board think Charlotte needed another film series?

“To bridge the gap between creator and viewer,” says Will Davis, founder of the Charlotte Film Lab Series and UNC Charlotte film studies professor.

Since the new series launched last fall, the Film Society has screened six well-made, but not-so-widely known, films. In each case, the filmmaker has attended the screening, too.

Up next: Los Angeles-based director Charlie Siskel brings his award-winning documentary, “Finding Vivian Maier,” to the Wells Fargo Auditorium in the lower level of the Knight Theater on Saturday.

The movie is more than a documentary about a renowned street photographer who worked in secret; it’s also a mystery that’s structured like a detective story, Siskel says.

The families who employed Maier as a nanny knew nothing of her life as a photographer. Maier was an employee, and her employers were careful not to pry into her personal life. Siskel says elements of class differences come into play in the film.

Maier’s photography, heralded since its discovery, was purely a private passion.

“Photography was a labor of love for Vivian,” Siskel says. “She didn’t get her due during her lifetime, and that makes you wonder: ‘How many other great artists are laboring in anonymity?’ ”

Siskel is a television and film producer whose credits include the Academy Award-winning “Bowling for Columbine” as well as “Religulous” (written by and starring Bill Maher). “Finding Vivian Maier” is his directorial debut.

The film has screened at film festivals from Miami to Berlin to the important Toronto International Film Festival.

Will Davis has been trying to land the film and its director for a while. He says you don’t have to be familiar with Maier’s work to find her fascinating.

“She was interested in art for art’s sake,” he says. “She only became posthumously famous. Vivian had this whole hidden life no one knew about.”

The Film Lab is what Davis calls a “nomadic series.” It doesn’t have a permanent home, nor does it happen on a set day. When it happens is driven by when organizers can get directors to Charlotte.

The Film Lab screened “From the Back of the Line,” a local documentary that examines the city of Charlotte’s immigration policies, at The International House in August. “Computer Chess,” a Sundance award-winning documentary about computers versus humans in the ultimate game of strategy, screened in April at the Wells Fargo Auditorium.

A recent $25,000 grant from the Knight Foundation will help ensure the Film Lab keeps moving throughout the city and exposing more people to independent film. An additional $5,000 from Knight will go toward screening equipment.

Siskel says series like the Film Lab are necessary for a movie like his to find its audience.

“We’ve been fortunate to get a wider release than a lot of documentaries get. We’ve played not just in New York, L.A. and Chicago, but in smaller cities, too. But this film was intended to be seen on a big screen. Word of mouth – like what’s provided by the Charlotte Film Lab – is essential.”