Missing People: Art and murder meet in film

The latest installment of Wilton Library’s New Perspectives Film Series, Missing People by David Shapiro, will be shown Saturday, Jan. 9, at 7:30 p.m. and will be followed by a Q&A session with the director.

The double-narrative documentary features a woman named Martina Batan, director of the prominent Ronald Feldman Fine Arts gallery in New York City.

Batan’s obsession with controversial New Orleans fringe artist Roy Ferdinand evokes the unsolved 1978 murder of her 14-year-old brother, as Shapiro follows his subject on a fact-finding mission to the Louisiana city, where she ventures in search of answers.

The two threads converge into an “interesting and unpredictable” denouement, Shapiro told The Bulletin. In her attempt to uncover Ferdinand’s past, Batan becomes friends with the late illustrator’s two sisters, and hires a private detective to reopen her slain brother’s cold case.

“The film asks more questions than it answers,” admitted Shapiro, but Missing People is less about the end than it is about the means, so to speak.

“Living in the gap” between the two narratives, it arrives not at any conclusion in the traditional sense of the word, but rather at subtle profundities having to do with the fundamental human emotions of love, loss and grief, and at social commentaries on race and class.

“It’s the type of film that traffics a little in ambiguity,” Shapiro said. “I don’t explicitly say what I myself think; I give my audience the information and instead ask them to do the thinking.”

Shapiro didn’t know that Batan’s brother had been murdered until after he had started filming. The original purpose of the documentary was to get to the bottom of her obsession with Ferdinand.

One an art collector, the other an artist, “we knew who each other was,” said Shapiro. At an industry event where both were in attendance, Batan showed him some of Ferdinand’s drawings she wanted him to see.

Ferdinand, who died in 2004, was a black man who had lived in New Orleans during the 90s, when the city reigned as the murder capital of America.

Threading themes of social justice through his unregarded canon, Ferdinand drew “colorful, violent and sexually graphic” depictions of the “American underbelly,” Shapiro said. “Martina, in her expert opinion, believes he belongs in the pantheon of great American artists.”

When he realized the full extent of Batan’s Roy Ferdinand collection — that were there not only more illustrations than the ones he’d already seen but hundreds more — Shapiro “knew there was something more at play.”

“Nobody collects so much of that kind of work for no real reason,” Shapiro said.

Interested to learn what had struck such a chord with her, he asked to film Batan. “I didn’t know about Martina’s history at the time, about the murder, but she agreed to let me film her, and we did that for a couple of months,” Shapiro said.

They ended up in New Orleans, on a mission to see the neighborhoods Ferdinand drew and to search for those who knew the artist. There, Batan met Ferdinand’s sisters Faye and Michelle, who revealed that both truth and untruth surround their deceased brother’s legacy.

“That’s the heart of the film,” Shapiro said. “Three women from different places, different classes, different races, grappling with very fundamental things in different ways, and learning from each other. I think we can all relate to and learn from that.”

“You get to witness these women navigate their suspicions and slowly become friends through a very complex and beautiful process,” he said.

According to Shapiro, the production process behind Missing People was a curious one, as it was shot mostly at night, due to the sleeping habits not only of the film’s star but also those of its director and cinematographer.

“It turns out that Martina is an insomniac,” Shapiro said. “She can trace her chronic insomnia all the way back to the night her brother was murdered, when she was afraid to go to sleep for fear of the nightmare she would have.”

Shapiro happens to be a bit of an insomniac himself, “as happens to be the woman who shot the film,” Lisa Rinzler, he said. Rinzler was the director of photography behind Albert Hughes’s Menace II Society and Ed Harris’s Pollock.

“We would start at midnight. The rest of the crew wasn’t crazy about it,” Shapiro joked, “but we three were in the zone.”

Missing People premiered in April in Toronto, and has since been working its way through the festival circuit. It won Best Documentary at the 2015 Hamptons International Film Festival and a Jury Citation from DOC NYC.

The Hamptons Film Festival is where Megan Smith-Harris, who curates Wilton Library’s New Perspectives Film Series and who will be moderating Shapiro’s Q&A, first saw Missing People.

“She approached me and told me about some of the films she’d been showing,” Shapiro said, “and it sounded great. The series seems very well done, and I’m looking forward to the Q&A after the showing.”

The title Missing People seems straightforward enough, but if you ask the film’s director, you may learn that it does more than comment on the narrative’s surface; it hints at what’s below.

“I would suggest ‘missing’ as it is used here can be both an adjective and a verb,” Shapiro said. “It’s not only that the people are missing; it’s the act of missing those missing people.”