A documentary’s subject is its core and driving force to
tackle whatever relevant issues it’s concerned with. It’s the human component
that can turn a heavily intellectual dilemma into a relatable story. Unlike
actors in the realm of fiction, documentary subjects don’t abide by a script,
yet the filmmaker is still manipulating their portrait to an extent. It’s the
person behind the camera’s job to uncover, dissect, and dig under the surface
to show us new glimpses of truth that weren’t in plain view.
However, what happens when your main subject has a subject
of her own whom she is trying to do research on? Furthermore, what if her
subject is also a documentarian in a way? Is the filmmaker making a documentary
about someone documenting someone else who was also documenting people in his
world? It’s meta, but that’s exactly what David Shapiro’s latest work “Missing
People” is about.
Shapiro’s initial subject is art collector and gallerist Martina Batan, who in turn has dedicated her life to find and preserve the work
of Roy Ferdinand, a painter from a crime-ridden neighborhood in New Orleans
whose work depicted the murder scenes, violence, rape, and drug dealing that were
around him. But how can these two stories be connected beyond the curatorial and
in a more emotional manner?
The answer is in Martina’s tragic past and how Roy’s life
and work resonate with her pain despite being from world’s that don’t seem to
have an intersection. Shapiro starts following one story that eventually takes two paths: one for Martina to reopen an old wound, and another
for Roy’s life to become visible via his sister’s memories of him.
“Missing People” is a work of humanistic complexities that
delivers even more truth that its premise could have predicted. The film
premiered at this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival where we had a chance to
speak with Shapiro.
Aguilar: There are two
subjects in “Missing People, ” and they are connected in a way that’s not evident at first. How did you find the first of them, Martina Batan, who is the link to the other subject, the artist?
David Shapiro: I
first found her, or rather she might have found me that’s a better way to put
it, at an art opening. She is a collector and a big gallerist in New
York, and she had seen my other films “Keep the River on Your Right in 2001
and “Fishing Heaven” in 2009, which were both at LAFF. She had seen my work,
she liked them, and she was telling me a little bit about the art that she had
been collecting. She knows how to tell a story. She told me little pieces of
information, which were very compelling and piqued my interest. Then she said,
“I’d love to show you the work. Would you take a look at it?” I didn’t really
know her but I said “OK.”
We set a date and I went to her place in Brooklyn
where she keeps her work. I was startled. I just thought there would be a few, and
there were hundreds of these drawings by this artist I’d never heard of named
Roy Ferdinand. The work was very arresting. It was very violent, and very
sexual. It was not what I was expecting. She told me a little bit more about
him, not a lot, but enough to pique me interest even more. Right away I was
interested in his work because I thought, “There is a documentary in this work
about a time and place that’s now gone: Pre-Katrina New Orleans.”
But I was also really startled, confused, and interested in why she was collecting this
work. Martina right away said, “I think Roy Ferdinand is a great American
artist and I’m going to do everything I can to bring attention to his work.” It
wasn’t that she was just collecting for money. I really had a sense that
something else was going on. I knew there was something rumbling under the
surface, so I said, “I’d like to make a film about Roy, but I’d also like to
include you in the film.” I think she was surprised about that. In retrospect, she
probably wanted me to make a film about Roy, but I knew there was some
connection. That’s how it all started.
Aguilar: At what
point did the storyline involving Martina’s brother come along as part of the
greater narrative of the documentary?
David Shapiro: That
was about a year later. I didn’t know her history. It took a while. It takes a
while in life and especially in documentary filmmaking for subjects and
filmmakers to trust one another. After about a year Martina told me that in
fact her brother had been brutally murdered in 1978 and the case remained
unsolved. Right then and there the light bulb went off for me and the whole
crew. Sometimes you are ahead of people and sometimes people have blind spots. They
can’t see the world and they can’t see what they do. Self-deception is part of
survival. There were places where the film, Roy, and Martina were ahead of us,
and there were places where we waited for them to catch up to what we suspected, which
was that in Roy’s work she saw something about her brother.
Aguilar: Did such shcoking discovery change the angle of the film dramatically?
David Shapiro: Well
I was very interested in this story. Right away I could see the double
narrative. I knew that there would be some overlap, but I was very interested
in how it would happen. That’s what I like to do, to make films where I
learn from the work. Films where I learn about people and the world. I thought
that it’d be very interesting. I knew right away, “Here are two people from
different races, different classes, different time periods, and yet I’m sure
there are some symmetries between them, some common denominators. I will let
the film unfold and find those.” I wanted to use the double narrative to try
and tell Roy’s story and to try to tell Martina’s story, but I thought the
film would live and exist in the gap between the two stories and in how they
had differences and symmetries.
Aguilar: Tell me
about going to New Orleans to meet Roy’s family and sort of reconstructing his steps
through Martina’s research. It was a breakthrough for Martina and a strange experience for Roy’s sisters.
David Shapiro: Yes,
that was fascinating. I didn’t know him, but Martina was researching and in a
way it was sort of a double investigation. She was investigating Roy, and I was
investigating both of them. I think it was very remarkable when we met Faye and
Michele, Roy’s sisters. At first they didn’t trust Martina and they were suspicious,
and rightly so. “Who is this woman? Why is she interested in my brother? Why is
she almost obsessed with my brother?“ For them it was their brother, but for
Martina he was this great artist because she had never met the man. He
represented something for her, but for the two sisters it was more like, “Hey,
what are you doing? This is my brother.” That was very interesting and then, I
would suggest that when finally Faye asks Martina, “What is going on? Why are
you interesting in this work really? Stop talking about the art,” she comes to
terms and wants to make peace with her tragic past. I think she gain some
strength and momentum from meeting the two sisters to move forward and reopen
Aguilar: It also
feels like Roy’s sisters learn about their brother by looking at him from
Martina’s perception. Then, Martina also finds out things about her own brother
that change her perception of him. His life unfolds in a different way for her
after this discoveries.
David Shapiro: That’s
right. We all have a
family and I think we all have a perception of our family that we like to keep
and we all have our positive memories in a certain way. Then when life
catches up to them, when you see a different perspective of them, or when you are a
couple degrees over, you can see things differently and it shakes you to the
foundation. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad. It was fascinating to
witness and to document that.
Aguilar: Each project must have its inherent challenges and problems, what was the
most difficult thing about making this particular film about these two individuals?
David Shapiro: The
hardest part was after Martina had a stroke and I was filming in the hospital.
That was very difficult and painful. We had become friends over the course of
four years. That’s a unique element of independent films, that you spend years making
a work like this and you develop a relationship with the people involved. What
happened was so tragic. I was filming her trying to remember. That meant just
sitting there with the camera. There is a lot of silence in watching somebody trying to
remember things. It was very painful and at a certain point I really asked her
truthfully, “Do you want me to continue this? “ She was insistent that we do
She was very adamant that the film be finished. Anything else would have
diminished her agency. She is not a shrinking violet. She is a very strong and
smart woman who does what she wants to do. At a certain point I started filming
in the hospital with my cell phone because it just felt right. Sometimes form
comes out of the material. I was just filming her about a foot away from her
with the cell phone and it just felt like the way to go because it had that
intimacy without the apparatus and the lights. Some of the final shots of the
film were done on a cell phone as well.
Aguilar: As a documentary filmmaker you get intimate access to people’s lives, do you ever like you become part of the
story, or do you try to keep an objective eye as much as possible?
David Shapiro: I don’t
necessarily believe in the ideology of cinema verité. I think by the very fact
that you have a camera there you are affecting the story and you are influencing
it. I always expose the apparatus. I show how the film was made. I acknowledge
the filmmaker and the filmmaking. Did I become part of this story? I suppose I
was a little bit of a catalyst. But I don’t want to diminish Martina’s agency
here, I think on some level people do things for a reason and I think she
wanted to make this film on some level because she knew Jeff would come up. I didn’t
know about Jeff at the beginning of the film, but she did and so I think she
was sort of using the film to exhort herself to grapple with her past. In that
sense I am part of the story, but I’m peripheral. I’m not the important of the
Aguilar: Do you hope
that Roy’s art will become more prominent or well known through the exposure
this film will bring and through Martina’s efforts? Sadly I have to say I had never about him before.
David Shapiro: I
didn’t know about his work either. I hope and trust that will happen. That was
Martina’s intention all along. I really think she is committed and really
believe that Roy Ferdinand is a great American artist, in her own words. She
found great solace in his work and in the film you can see why. The
thing that is interesting about the film and that I hope viewers will absorb is
that you may think of his work in one way at the beginning of the film, but by
the end I hope that is contextualizes and you’ll see it in a different light. I
think Roy was a very sophisticated artist and really attendant to detail and
the world in a very remarkable and smart way.
Aguilar: In a way he
documented these voiceless and nameless people through his paintings. Would you say a painter can also be a documentarian through his or her work?
David Shapiro: That’s
absolutely right. That was the very first thing that I thought when I walked
into her studio in Brooklyn. That’s when my light bulb as a documentarian went
off. I thought there was a documentary in the work itself, and then there is
the person who made it, and there is Martina. I didn’t know about Martina’s
brother who was murdered yet, but even in that embryonic moment I knew that
there was a film here because the work is very remarkable and it really is a
documentary in and of itself. Kind of like George Catlin and the paintings he
did of Native Americans. Even though there is artistic license, in the detail there
is a great emotional truth.
Aguilar: What themes or subjects are you
pursuing these days for your next project?
David Shapiro: My
next film is going to be called “Hofu” and it’s a film about a friendship
spanning 40 years, fraud, and pizza.
Aguilar: That’s a
great premise. How was your
experience at this year’s LAFF where several of your films have premiered before?
David Shapiro: I’m
a big fan of LAFF, I’m an alumn you can say. My first film “Keep the River on
Your Right” premiered here in 2001 and won the jury award, and went on to win
an Independent Spirit Award. This festival has really supported my work and I
think it’s a fantastic festival because it takes chances and supports and
champions independent films. My second film “Fishing Heaven” also premiered
here and then was bought by HBO and eventually was nominated for an Emmy. Now “Missing People” premiered here to great audiences. I’m very grateful and
honored. I believe this festival truly supports independent film.