ART AND SURVIVAL
5 Questions for David Shapiro, Director of MISSING PEOPLE
by Anthony Kaufman, DOC10 Programmer
A mix of compelling true crime investigation and heart-wrenching story of grief and healing, Missing People follows Manhattan art collector Martina Batan, who is plagued by her teenage brother’s 1978 murder. While she hires a private investigator to find out the truth behind her brother's death, she also diligently seeks out the artwork of New Orleans so-called "gangster" Roy Ferdinand, a deceased outsider artist whose violent imagery resonates with Batan's afflicted mind. DOC10 speaks with Missing People director David Shapiro (Take the River on Your Right) about his evolving process, a Lego block and how his characters turned to art for their very survival.
Initially, the film was going to be more about Ray Ferdinand, the outsider artist, but then it became more about Martina. Did you have to convince Martina to allow it to be more about her life and struggles?
When I saw Martina’s collection of Roy Ferdinand drawings, I was startled. His work chronicled African-American cultural identity of pre-Katrina New Orleans, people struggling for dignity and survival in a volatile world of crime, drugs, poverty and violence. Martina had collected hundreds of them - colorful, violent and sexually graphic works - one was more arresting than the next. It was a world Martina was not part of, yet totally identified with. I knew I wanted to make a film about Roy straight away. But Martina was surprised when I insisted she also be in the film. “What’s so interesting about me?” she said. At the onset, I didn’t know about Jeff’s murder, but I sensed something rumbling under Martina’s surface. After some resistance, she agreed to move forward. I think Martina thought the film would be 98% Roy, 2% Martina. In my mind, the film began on equal footing.
How "collaborative" were you with Martina while making the film? It was obviously very personal and intimate, so wondering how much you let her into your process?
People do things for a reason. Overcoming her initial reservations, after we began filming, Martina knew that her past would eventually come up, and I think she wanted it to. I would suggest that Martina began using the film to help her grapple with her brother’s unsolved murder and how that colored her life. Like Little Edie before her, in Grey Gardens (the Maysles brothers' direct cinema classic), at times,
the subject was directing the film.
One visual image particularly stands out—Martina and the lego block. It's just such an overt symbol of how troubled Martina was. When did you decide to make this part of the film, and was there ever any concern that it was almost too literal?
For two years, I asked Martina permission to film in her apartment. When she finally allowed me access, I walked through the door and saw the lego block. I couldn’t believe my eyes. At first, I pretended as if it wasn’t there, but then later, sheepishly, I asked about it. “Oh, that’s my lego block,” Martina said, as if everyone had one. “I work on it at night, when I can’t sleep.” As a symbol of blockage, as a repository of loss, love and pain, you’re right: it was almost too good to be true. But that’s why documentaries are often more compelling than fiction; if you made that up, it would never ring true.
Much of the movie's emotional weight comes from an unexpected place...Martina's connection to Ferdinand's sisters. How did that relationship change or impact how you conceived the film?
The dynamics between people are the center of life, and in films, the source of drama. From initial distrust to deep connection, Martina, Faye and Michele navigated a remarkable friendship across race, class and time. Roy’s sisters, clearly, had dealt with their own brothers death in a more constructive way than had Martina. From their example, Martina gained insight, strength and perhaps courage, to finally investigate her brothers’ unsolved murder and seek closure. And Fay and Michele learned about their own brother—things perhaps they were too close to see–through Martina’s professional knowledge and passion; her belief that Roy Ferdinand is a great American artist. While Missing People was conceived as a double narrative—about Martina and Roy—the unexpected friendship between these three women filled the form with meaning.
Your first documentary Keep the River on Your Right is another psychological portrait of a complex individual, but it's obviously a very different film. Do you see any connections between Tobias Schneebaum and Martina Batan?
To use the old hippie phrase, Martina and Tobias were on their own trip—Tobias searching for an edenic paradise where he could find acceptance, and Martina, for answers to decades-old questions about her brother’s unsolved murder in the art of a self-taught artist from New Orleans. Both, perhaps, overdetermined what they found. But as makers, collectors and true champions of art—each turned to art for answers, and quite literally, survival. Marginal characters, their deep engagement with art, helped Martina and Tobias locate their place in a complex world.