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DOC NYC: ‘Missing People’ Is an Award-Winning Documentary That’s Impossible to Pitch

DOC NYC: 'Missing People' Is an Award-Winning Documentary That's Impossible to Pitch

There’s no possible elevator pitch for “Missing People,” the new documentary from David Shapiro (“Keep The River On Your Right,” “Finishing Heaven”) which recently won Best Documentary at the Hamptons International Film Festival and will soon screen at DOC NYC.

READ MORE: 10 Must-See Documentaries at DOC NYC

Even attempting to describe the film gets tricky; there’s no social issue or feel-good story in sight. The ostensible subject of the film is Martina Batan, director of a prominent Manhattan art gallery, who is obsessed with the work of Roy Ferdinand, the late African-American artist who depicted the violence of ’90s New Orleans in all its vivid color. But the topic of “Missing People” is much broader. As the story unfolds, the viewer begins to understand the dark history that’s driving Batan’s obsession: When she was a teenager, Batan’s younger brother was killed. The killer was never identified. Though it’s not exactly a crime story, “Missing People” is a complex mystery of the most gripping kind.

The film follows Martina on a fact-finding mission to New Orleans to meet people who knew Ferdinand, including his sisters Faye and Michele. The parallel narratives merge as the three women bond over their lost brothers. Then, Batan’s life takes a tragic turn.

Shapiro, a visual artist whose work has been exhibited at MoMA, the Brooklyn Museum and elsewhere, knew Batan as an art collector who had bought a piece of his work. When she started talking to him about Ferdinand, he wanted to learn more.

Indiewire recently talked to Shapiro about the new film.

What was your way into the story?

I met Martina at an opening. She is very withholding and proper and is a very sophisticated Manhattan art dealer. Because she sells art, she knows how to tell a story. She told me about some artist she’d been collecting and she said, “I think you may be kind of interested in him.” She told me a little bit about Roy Ferdinand, and to be honest, I wasn’t looking to make an outsider artist movie, in that trope or genre. But I did go over to her studio in Greenpoint [Brooklyn], and she made it seem like she just had a couple of works, but there were hundreds of them, every one more charged and sexual and graphic than the next.

I had a documentary moment where the lightbulb went on. I just sensed something was rumbling under the surface there, and the more I learned about Roy… he was incredibly compelling. I thought his art was very charged and was not what I expected [Batan] to be collecting. From there, we moved forward very slowly, she was very careful. I said, “I’m very interested in making a movie about Roy and his work, but I’m also interested in why you collect it.” She said, “That’s not interesting at all,” to which I said, “Actually, it is. It’s very compelling that you’re collecting this work. I want to know why.” We agreed to move forward slowly and over the course of the next couple months I said, “I’ll make a film about Roy, but I’m also going to include you.”

When did she reveal to you the backstory about her brother?

About a year into filming, she told me about her brother and it made sense to me. My editors (Becky Laks , Adam Kurnitz) and I played with structure, and to make the audience complicit with Martina or be ahead of Martina, you almost want to say, “Hurry up!”” There’s a tremendous transference between stories, her brother’s murder and the crime that Roy Ferdinand is depicting.

How did you get her to open up?

You find ways of having common denominators. One was that Martina was an insomniac, which you saw in the film. Well so am I, and so is the DP, Lisa Rinzler. We were able to do shoots starting at midnight! Of course, the rest of the crew wasn’t so crazy about it, but it worked for us.
Did Martina eventually become a sort of co-director? How much say did she have in the project when it became clear that the film was going to be largely about her and her brother’s story? Did she have any editorial control?

No, she did not. We came to an unofficial, silent but understood agreement about collaboration. I think she saw that I was really trying to make a deep, psychological film that was not going to be cheap and salacious or easy. I think she started to give out information more and more. I felt very privileged to witness those scenes with Faye and Michelle and Martina (Ferdinand’s sisters) where they really connected as human beings and went through this roller coaster ride of distrust, empathy and compassion. There was a connection on a human level. I conceived the film as a double narrative. There was symmetry between all the people involved and stories, even though they were across class and race and time. There was some real fundamental, humanistic issues at play. I thought that if these two stories ran side-by-side, in the location between them this film could exist in an interesting way that I couldn’t have predicted.

Honestly, those are some of the reasons I loved the film so much, that it really is a film that unfolds on so many different levels. It’s not the kind of documentary where you can say, “Oh, it’s about X.” But of course, that will be a challenge when getting the film out into the world. I thought it was totally gripping and it’s been well-received, but I’ve talked to some people who say, “I couldn’t figure out what it was about.”

Yes, I’m actually coming up against that. I think it’s a complex work, and it’s a very distinct work and I’m proud of that. There’s something that’s en vogue right now in filmmaking which to me is very slick and surface-y. I wanted to make a deep and psychological film because I trust the audience to have intelligence and make connections and think about it for themselves if they find it compelling. There’s a lot there to work with. I don’t necessarily have all the answers, but I do think that there are things that are remarkable that happened in the film, and are provocative.

I have to fight for it in the world because I think it’s a provocative work. Roy’s work has incredible questions in relation to what’s going on today, sadly. It was made 25 years ago, but in this cultural moment of ongoing social justice issues and the disposability of contemporary lives, they were onto something. It really did document a subculture of people who were literally washed away. In that sense, I think that I really need to advocate for the film to be seen and to be understood not just as a true crime movie, but a much more philosophical film about a number of things. It’s hard because people like to have an elevator pitch; they’ll put you in a pigeonhole. You’re right, this film touches on a lot of different things in a sophisticated and ambiguous way that allows you the viewer to think about it and draw your own conclusions.
Has there been interest from distributors? 

Not yet. I was talking to one distributor, but no, unfortunately not. I think it’s a slow-burning film and we’ll get out there and find people who get it. It’s a really challenging film that’s not easy to describe, but I’m confident that if it gets to the right people and gets a champion behind it it could have a life in the world.

Have you spoken to HBO?

I have, but I haven’t heard back from them yet. The last film I wrote and produced they bought and it got nominated for an Emmy. The world is in a different space right now about what kind of films they’re looking for, and this isn’t necessarily going to be easy because it’s not about rock and roll and it doesn’t have a celebrity and it’s not sexy or slick.

It’s not an issue film, like a social justice film, but at the same time it touches on a lot of issues because you’re not just serving it up to the audience and saying, “Here’s how you’re supposed to feel.”

That’s right. Like I said, I trust the audience….It’s kind of like life, sometimes you just get all these curveballs that come out of nowhere. Sometimes it’s drudgery and sometimes it’s incredible excitement and you’re alive in the moment, and sometimes things happen that are so out of the realm of what you expect. That’s the type of film I wanted to make, something that would embody that real emotional truth of life. I think there are moments in that film that I felt absolutely privileged to be in the room with these women going back and forth and getting to know each other as human beings. 

At the very beginning of the film, I made the assumption that Martina was sort of peripheral to society and sort of mentally ill or an outcast. But then you see that she’s this art industry insider, and you have that take on her, but you also see she grew up middle class and Filipino in Queens, and that’s another layer of who she is. I like how it challenges our assumptions about people.

I think the way the film is structured is that it slowly reveals information. You might think one thing about Martina, and you might think one thing about Roy’s work at the beginning of the film, but by the end, I hope you have information to understand way more than meets the eye. You can’t judge someone by first appearances, and you can’t judge their work without context. I think we found a different meaning at the end, and it comes in and out of focus. It drives home the point that art has the ability to preserve memories and preserve history. Sometimes it can; sometimes it can’t.

The film is sort of meta in the way that Roy is remembering all these subcultures and people who are gone and Martina is trying to remember Roy and also remember her brother Jeff. The film is trying to remember everybody. That’s why I titled the film “Missing People” rather than “Absent People.” I wanted it to be both a noun and a verb because I thought that better embodied all the characters, Faye and Michelle, who also miss their brother and also have brothers who had a violent life. There are a lot of films made about the immediacy of a violent conflict, this is really the aftermath and the survivors and what that does to people, just the very fundamental human thing of sisters missing their brothers who are dead. 

How did you fund the film?

It was ridiculous what I did but I was really committed to making this film. As I said, I’m also a visual artist, so I sold my work to make the film. It’s hard enough to sell your artwork and you’re lucky if you can do it. Then I made it the old-fashioned way, which is credit cards, and I had a great champion investor and producer Michael Tubbs who was instrumental in helping me fund it. I didn’t do it through Kickstarter so it’s really a risky proposition, but we made it for not a lot of money for what the film looks like and who was in it. Alan Oxman produced it, who’s an award-winning editor. Together, we just found a way to get it done and get it into the world. Now I’m just really fighting for it and making sure people know about this film because it’s important.

Since this isn’t a film you can just pitch in a line, what is your line when people ask you what the film is about?

I try and use what I can as a calling card to get people into the film. My last film, I said, it’s a complex film about a character who really transgressed and they couldn’t understand the longer version of it, so I said it was a film about a man who went native and lived with a cannibal tribe. That wasn’t what the film was about but that got people into a theater. In this case, I would say it’s about an art collector who is obsessed with a self-taught artist from New Orleans whose work is very violent and sexual and she hires a private investigator to look into her brother’s unsolved murder. At the same time she has an investigation into this artist, and who he said he was may not be who he really was. Something like that.

DOC NYC runs from November 12-19. For tickets and showtimes, visit the official DOC NYC website.

READ MORE: DOC NYC Announces Surprise World Premiere of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The Ties That Bind’

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