Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

Missing People: An Art Dealer on the Trail of Unsolved Murder and Outsider Drawings

Missing People” showtimes at DOC NYC:

Sunday November 15, 2015 at 7:15 PM, Bow Tie Chelsea Cinemas
Wednesday November 18 at 5:15 PM, IFC Center

still from "Missing People" (2015; dir. David Shapiro)
still from “Missing People” (2015; dir. David Shapiro)

David Shapiro’s “Missing People,” which won Best Documentary at the Hamptons International Film Festival earlier this fall, shadows art gallery director Martina Batan in her twin missions better to grasp the past lives of two people now gone. One is Roy Ferdinand, an African-American man in pre-Katrina New Orleans – crime capital of America at the time of his death – who, at the urging and funding of a local art dealer, chronicled the culture of destruction around him. Martina has collected around 200 of his sometimes lurid drawings, keeping small pictures of them on hand to show to other people. The second missing person is her younger brother, Jeffery Batan, who in 1978 was violently killed, aged 14. His body was found in a yard near the family home in Queens, but murderer and motive remain unsolved.

artwork by Roy Ferdinand. Image provided via Triple Canopy
artwork by Roy Ferdinand. Image provided via Triple Canopy

The film opens with her description of this event, accompanied by news footage. Restless since that day, then a freshman at School of Visual Arts, Martina, now in mid-life, believes that something like closure is due, a resolution that will bring her some measure of rest. The accumulation of Ferdinand’s artwork, untutored illustration essentially, is an ongoing stopgap offering provisional or stand-in meanings, as if the depictions of murder and social decay by this artist, who often lived on the streets, could fill in her brother’s untold story. Martina visits Ferdinand’s sisters, Fay and Michele, in New Orleans, to learn more about him, which becomes a process of familial bonding.

Home in New York, Martina engages a private investigator to pursue the still-open case of her brother’s murder and surface what he can. This, too, is a form of progress, but its disclosures, ever more unexpected, throw her into new narratives that answer sets of questions she’d never know to ask. The speed and intrigue of the film move in a golden ratio, where a slow arch gathers momentum as it centers in on itself. Several points in the story could be a feasible ending, but as it continues, its psychological depth intensifies and keeps turning.

The documentary is about meaning-making as much as it is about Martina, in the film’s search for connection with her – finding her within a fog of her growing emotional vacancy – as she ties together what she can of her memories, her fears, and recent revelations about her brother’s life. Our contact with her is threaded through her contact with herself. Meaning is in moments suspended for the sake of continuation; continuation is sometimes halted for finding moments of reflexive meaning.

The film runs back and forth between clips of Martina’s present life and footage from decades past, the unfolding of who Roy Ferdinand was alongside the piecemeal construction of Jeffery’s life and death. This fluid structure is consistent in the way it keeps the viewer involved, on every level, as seemingly disparate elements of people’s lives, their interiors and exteriors, come in and out of view. Most remarkable is the balance the filmmaker maintains in documenting Martina’s ongoing struggles and snapping points. Ultimately, Shapiro respects the craft of non-fiction cinema as much as he does Martina Batan.

Roy Ferdinand, Untitled (Sax Player), 1993
Roy Ferdinand, Untitled (Sax Player), 1993