Award Winning documentary

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

Missing PeopleThu Nov 12 14:49:18 EST 2015

There's no easy pitch for this one.

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.

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.

Missing PeopleThe 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 had a documentary moment where the lightbulb went on. I just sensed something was rumbling under the surface."

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.Image of Roy Ferdinand in 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.

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