“Can you stop telling me about the work and tell me why you’re doing it?” Midway through “Missing People,” a sister of the late outsider artist Roy Ferdinand asks this question to art gallerist Martina Batan. But by then we already know the answer, or rather we know the attraction — Ferdinand’s lively and violent paintings of New Orleans street life hold some healing aspect for Batan, who’s been reeling ever since her 14-year-old brother’s unsolved murder in 1978. Director David Shapiro focuses his documentary on that unknown pull: we all have compulsions toward a specific artist or artwork, but here he chronicles one woman’s route to articulating why.
The film initially feels like a hoodwink of sorts. When we first meet Batan, she’s serving as Vice President and Director of an established art gallery in New York. Her mission is clear: to amass the largest collection of Roy Ferdinand’s work and belongings (down to his old boots with socks still inside), and donate them to a museum for a proper retrospective. Yet when Shapiro follows Batan home from her day job, we discover a different picture: a weary insomniac, passing the time with her two pugs and a growing block of LEGO in her living room. It is an energy-deprived schedule that her brother’s murder defined at age 18, and you can sense Batan growing nervous at Shapiro’s questions about her background rather than Ferdinand’s.
It’s an unlikely fit, this guarded, reserved woman, with the confrontational subject matter and personality of Ferdinand. Much like Batan, Shapiro keeps the context behind Ferdinand’s impact hidden, notching the early passages of the film past compelling and into unfocused territory. But once Batan travels to Louisiana on a research trip and meets Ferdinand’s two sisters (Faye Harris and Michele Ferdinand, understandably wary of Batan’s intentions), an event forces a reaction from Batan that finally brings real resonance to the whole piece.
Shapiro builds the narrative as a mystery, of Batan’s search for closure to her brother’s death paired with uncovering the real Roy Ferdinand. That second concern proves just as slippery as the first, given that Ferdinand was a coarse personality prone to addiction and exaggeration, and who may have been a gangster, or just played at being one because it sold better. Shapiro hints at a similar transformation with Batan, too — an archival montage of her reveals a punk with model looks and “Joey Ramone haircut,” who dove into the New York underground scene and came out as a major player on the art world.
We sense the connection between Ferdinand and Batan long before she does, and Shapiro mostly succeeds in framing this frustrating reality of objectivity. When speaking about Ferdinand and his personal life, Batan is animated and adept in probing the possible influences and allusions in his work. But when asked about events in her own life, Shapiro and DP Lisa Rinzler capture in tight close-up a numbing haze that overtakes Martina. It’s a gripping, sharply observed ritual that occurs over the extended period of time that Shapiro covers.
In the end, clarity comes well after it should, and yet a resolution remains forever on the horizon. Shapiro, who last chronicled the about-face of an anthropologist into cannibalism in “Keep The River On Your Right,” rarely takes the obvious path down Batan’s story. In a somewhat detached yet engaged filmmaking style, he more captures mood and the quiet movements behind actions. In that sense “Missing People” is an intelligent, deeply felt piece on grief and memory, light on closure but compelling in the textures and characters of its timeline. [B]