Fifteen years ago, David Shapiro followed New York literary figure Tobias Schneebaum into the jungles of Peru and Indonesian Papua for the documentary Keep The River On Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale, his directorial debut.
This year’s Hot Docs festival marks the visual artist-turned-filmmaker’s return to the director’s chair with the world premiere of Missing People, a documentary that follows Manhattan curator Martina Batan (pictured, right) as she travels to New Orleans to meet the sisters of late artist Roy Ferdinand, whose vividly colorful and violent slice-of-life drawings she is obsessed with collecting.
The project got started when Batan invited Shapiro to a Greenpoint warehouse housing her collection of Ferdinand’s work. Perhaps hoping the director would want to make a documentary about the artist, who died in 2005, Shapiro was more intrigued by her connection to Ferdinand’s work than the work itself.
“She’s a player in the art world and seemed like the kind of person who would collect a certain type of work—perhaps more minimalist work— but this was really arresting and startling,” Shapiro tells realscreen. “I got right away that it wasn’t about money. The work meant something more to her. She is a person for whom art has a great meaning.”
They did a couple shoots and when he realized Batan was an insomniac–a condition given visual form by a massive Lego block in her apartment–the documentary took off. Soon it became apparent that Batan’s desire to see Ferdinand posthumously lauded as a great American artist was tapping into her grief over the unsolved murder of her 14-year-old brother Jeff in 1978. Things took a turn when, a year into production, she hired a private investigator (pictured, left) and her obsessions began to converge.
Shapiro spent four years shooting with cinematographer Lisa Rinzler (The 50 Year Argument, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God) with financing from private investors. Among his challenges were lengthy night shoots, framing Ferdinand’s art in an interesting way and combining several complex subjects: grief, outsider art, cultural relativism and a murder mystery.
Ahead of its world premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival on Friday evening (April 24), Shapiro spoke with realscreen about making the thematically ambitious film.
Did you know Martina well before you began work on Missing People?
Yes, I did know her well. I’m also a visual artist, so she had collected some of my work. I met her at an opening and she had seen a couple of my other films and she said, ‘Would you like to come to my studio? I’d like to show you some work.’ And I said sure. I expected to see something quite different than hundreds of Roy’s drawings. I was startled.
She started to tell me about Roy and his life story—very juicy bits—and I was intrigued. I think she was doing it to glean my interest. She is a very smart, capable woman with a lot of agency and understands our mediated world. She understood that part of her project to bring his work attention would be a film about him. I was very intrigued but I also suspected there was a lot more there than met the eye.
What was the challenge in making a movie that features a lot of visual art?
That was one of my red flags that went up when I first met Martina and I suspected she was interested in having me make a piece of work. You know, it’s very difficult. There is a real trope and a lot of clichés about art in films and even outsider artist films. I didn’t want to necessarily do the usual thing and have long, slow zooms and pans. I wanted the work to speak for itself and to be introduced in unorthodox ways.
I worked with editors Becky Latz and Adam Kurnitz for over a year and a half developing a lexicon for the film and finding ways of showing the work in context. We posited it at the beginning of the film in one way, and then the very last shots of the film—when you see the work for the final time—I think they have a different meaning. Maybe you think of them differently. That was the goal that I had.
You have multiple themes – grief, outsider art, a murder mystery – what was it like juggling these various threads?
It was quite, quite challenging. It was like a big jigsaw puzzle… At first, I didn’t know there was an unsolved murder involved. Once she hired a private investigator, of course, it was heading down a different path, but then the film became something else. I think that form comes out of the material. So it took a lot of writing and rewriting and editing and re-editing to find the right way to posit these two stories. I would suggest that the lacuna between the two stories and the two characters is where the film lies. There are tremendous symmetries. I want my audience to form their own connections, meanings and their own leaps. That to me is a good piece of filmmaking and a complex film.
Both Missing People and Keep The River On Your Right feature New York characters fascinated with another culture. What interests you in that topic?
I am interested in cultural relativism. There are a lot of qualities underneath the surface of this film about race and class but there are tremendous symmetries on a humanist level. In the film, there are three women who have complicated relationships with a brother who died and who at times lived volatile lives.
There was this piece of capital, which is the artwork, that means something in New York and is commodifiable but I think [Roy's sisters] understood after a point it really meant something a lot more. When Fay asks, “Can you stop telling me about the work and tell me why you’re doing it?” she’s speaking for the whole audience. That’s the first time that Martina confronts a lot and it dredges up a lot. They grew to be friends during the film and it was a real privilege to witness these three women connecting as human beings.
There is a dream-like quality to the film. How did you conceive the visual style?
Once I realized that Martina was an insomniac I realized that we needed material that wasn’t cliché, that wasn’t on the nose about what it’s like to be up at night. We started shooting at midnight and just drove around in my car. It was like night patrols and we did that a couple dozen times to cull material for the montages. We ended up doing shoots with Martina that started at midnight so it was tricky on the crew.
What drew you back to the documentary world?
I love the form of documentary because I want to learn, as an artist in general, and just as a filmmaker, about the world, characters and people and, of course, myself. It’s a real privilege and it’s a real labor of love and obligation to take on a project like this. This was four years in the making. It’s not an easy film per se, but it has great beauty and emotional truth to it. I approach a documentary with a script, with an idea in mind, but with an open mind and heart for things to happen. It’s different when I make different types of visual art for a different audience and context. I don’t have to abide by rules.
It’s a real golden age right now. Documentaries are taking on the form of narratives and narratives are taking on the form of documentaries. By that I mean documentaries are telling stories in a very economical, plot-point driven way. Often very stylized, often very beautiful and quicker paced than 10 to 15 years ago. Whereas narratives are adopting a lexicon and even a shooting style that allows you to parachute in, feel an intimacy with characters and just be witness to a scene. I think there is a real transference right now and some wonderful work being made. I’m happy to be part of it.
What do you think of Roy Ferdinand’s work?
I saw Roy’s work as a documentary in and of itself—of a time and place that vanished. Once I got to know Martina, I saw her beautiful, desperate and meaningful need to remember her brother. There is a meta quality to remembering people. We all carry around worlds inside that vanish if you don’t write stories or if you don’t make art. They just vanish.
It’s very important that people remember Martina, Jeff, Roy and the people depicted in Roy’s work. I want it to be seen and let the audience be the judge of what they think of Roy’s work. What Roy says at the end of the film is very meaningful: “The important thing in life is to be seen and recognized as a fellow human being who is alive in the world.” I think that’s a very simple and beautiful thing.
Watch the trailer for Missing People below:
- Missing People screens at Hot Docs today (April 24) at 7 p.m. at Scotiabank Theatre, on Saturday (April 25) at 11:30 a.m. at TIFF Bell Lightbox and on Friday (May 1) at 9:15 p.m. at Hart House Theatre. Visit Hot Docs’ website for ticket info.