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Being Gentrified, Insomnia and Documentary Time: David Shapiro on His LAFF-Premiering, Missing People

Missing People

by
in Directors, Interviews
on Jun 12, 2015

In 2011 a friend said to me, “We are going to work on the movie later.” I smiled and nodded in response, knowing she would eke out more information at her own pace given her extreme privacy and love of intrigue. Little did I know that this friend, Martina Batan, was to be the subject of a feature film by David Shapiro, whose critically acclaimed directorial debut Keep the River On Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale was released nearly 15 years ago. Missing People parallels the life of Batan, a NYC gallery director, with that of an outsider artist from New Orleans, Roy Ferdinand, whose work Martina obsessively collects. Ferdinand’s vivid, violent works document the gritty community he was a part of, speaking directly to an event buried deep within Martina’s psyche: the brutal murder of her younger brother Jeff in the late ‘70s. The film’s revelations, twists and intimacy move beyond portrait and into a collective meditation on memory, culminating in a shocking, unexpected ending that feels like a distant alternate reality. I reached out to Shapiro to ask him how he was able to layer a film with such accessible yet intelligent complexity about a woman I feel I only knew the very surface of.

Missing People has its U.S. premiere tonight at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

Filmmaker: Martina is the type of person who says what she thinks and feels but rarely in relation to her own life. She is extraordinarily blunt but not in a self-reflexive way. She allowed you into her world with an uncharacteristic trust. How did your relationship with Martina develop? At what point did she turn into the subject for a film?

Shapiro: The origin story, so to speak, of a documentary is always telling and, in many ways, establishes the dynamic between subject and filmmaker. I first met Martina at an art opening four years ago. Martina introduced herself and said she liked my films. She told me about an artist she had been collecting, reeling out little information, but enough to pique my interest. “He’s a great American artist that no one knows,” she said.

When I showed up in her studio in Brooklyn to see the work, I was stunned. There were hundreds of drawings made by a little-known, self-taught artist from New Orleans: Roy Ferdinand. Roy died in 2004, shortly before Hurricane Katrina. The work was arresting. Martina stated her intention: to raise awareness of Roy’s work and then donate her collection to a major American museum.

I believe, in retrospect, Martina wanted me to make a film about Roy. She understood the potential to reach a broader audience than the art world. I knew then and there I wanted to make a film about Roy, which also included Martina and why she collected his work. We agreed to move forward. I think in her mind, the ratio would be something like, 90% Roy to 10% Martina. In my mind, it started at 50/50. We all do things for a reason. I suspect at some level, Martina knew Jeff would come up. Perhaps this was her way of extorting herself into finally grappling with her past. I didn’t know about Martina’s history at the time — about her brother’s murder — but I sensed something rumbling under her surface. I trusted my instinct as a filmmaker.

Martina has a formidable intelligence. I think to understate that diminishes her agency. She is a feminist – a powerful woman who set out to do what she wanted to do on her own terms – regardless of engendered expectation or what anyone else thought. She wanted to study photography; she did. She wanted to become a professional woman in the art world, she became director of a prominent gallery in New York. She chose not to have children. She buys art without second thought but is often late with her rent. And when it comes to intimate relationships, Martina freely admits, she does better with dogs than people.

Martina acknowledges her privileges, her shortcomings, her own choices and their consequences. I think she’s remarkably self-reflexive, actually. But self-deception is also part of human survival. It’s way easier to look at someone else’s life and say, “Duh – don’t you see what you’re doing; of course there’s a fucking connection between Jeff and Roy!” But turn the lens on yourself and things quickly rack out of focus. I think Martina’s blind spot orbits around her brother, Jeff. There, her clarity blurs and understandably so.

The flip side of an independent film, especially a documentary, is time. Docs take years, both out of necessity and intent. Whether waiting for life to unfold or running out of money – often, things are shot piecemeal over years. But over the course of time, you really get to know someone. And they see for themselves your commitment; you keep coming back for another shoot, another interview, asking the same question a different way, in different light, in another location. Over time, Martina and I developed a mutual trust. She trusted me and ultimately herself to tell her story in an unfettered and honest way. Ultimately, she felt comfortable sharing the most intimate and painful details of her life. I’m grateful she did, and I felt a deep obligation to tell her story, to tell Jeff’s story and Roy’s story without judgment and with respect. So yes, Martina is self-reflexive (with a caveat), but hey, we all have one.

Filmmaker: The line between journalist, artist, documentarian, anthropologist and even, to some extent, psychologist all seem blurred in your work. How do you view the role of the contemporary documentarian? How do you see yourself as a director?

Shapiro: If you’re dealing with people — that is, inhabiting someone else’s consciousness, building drama, painting a picture though images and sound of a particular time and place – isn’t that the job description for any filmmaker, let alone documentarian?

Documentarians today run the gamut from entertainers to radical artists. I think documentary as a form is more vibrant than ever, and, in many ways, has less constraints than fiction. They cost less, can live without celebrity and studios, and don’t have to pretend. With less there is often more. I think this particular moment for documentary is one of transference — documentaries are taking on the grammar of fiction (plot points, stylized shooting, recreations) and fiction, the grammar of docs (flies on the wall, hand-held POV, bearing witness to make you feel like you’re in the room with the movie star).

As a director, you have to locate your quadrant in the grid, with the X axis being “entertainment > critique,” and the intersecting Y axis, “formula > original work.” And you have to make peace with your audience expectation. If you’re going to make an experimental non-linear feature, you can’t expect a run at the multiplex. Conversely, if you make a book report, don’t expect laurels.

But interesting things always happen when you collapse borders and misapply rules, so long as you know what rules are in the first place. I collapse borders in my other practice (as a visual artist) all the time. I extend that to my filmmaking and, based on the project, shift form and quadrants as a director. For Missing People, I conceived a double narrative. I thought the film would live in the lacuna between stories – in symmetries and differences across race, class and time – between the people in the film.

I also believe, in large measure, form comes out of the material. Since Martina was an insomniac (and so am I), I realized we had to shoot at night. Shoots often began at midnight. My DP, the amazing Lisa Rinzler, is an insomniac too, so it wasn’t so bad for her, but the rest of the crew wasn’t too pleased. Ultimately, Lisa and I drove around beginning at midnight, sort of on patrol, shooting New York B roll until dawn. It was crazy and fun and felt true to the film. It’s peoples’ idiosyncrasies and obsessions that make us, and our work, interesting.

Filmmaker: The accessibility of filmmaking is changing the visibility of so many unheard stories. How do you feel about this change? Ferdinand saw himself as a renegade archivist. Martina tries to unveil both Ferdinand’s work and also the life of her long dead brother. And as a director you take on a breed of waning New York eccentrics that silently live in old rent-controlled buildings. I wondered if you feel these outsider or lesser-known figures are a thing of the past in some sense?

Shapiro: We are all being gentrified. Even our interiorized space, to a large extent, is being coopted through social media. Everything is self-conscious and recouped, our interests, our tastes, our look, our posts — our brand. While people are branding themselves, what’s authentic and what’s cultivated is becoming harder to discern.

I love older New Yorkers. I’ve made three films about them. I’m a lifer myself, a life-long New Yorker from the Lower East Side. But I can’t even recognize the city I was born in, let alone afford to live in. So the old adage, “There are a million stories in the city,” might need to be updated: there are a million stories of millionaires in the city, and this is not one of them. Yes, a generation of souls with old worlds inside are fading fast, others will replace them but not first without rent increases. So, by dint of that, stories may become more monolithic as diversity narrows. But New York as the icon of self-invention still beckons; so hopefully, characters will answer the casting call and still be drawn here like filaments to a magnet.

Filmmaker: Your films, along with your visual art, are preoccupied with how objects can tell a story. Whether the object is a painting, or a receipt from a store, or the simple leaf from a tree in a landscape weighted with history, you seem interested in representing ephemera. How did this fascination develop? How do you approach this fascination through the more fluid medium of film? Or is film just another object in your mind?

Shapiro: I’m interested in lots of different things, ideas and people. Yes, I am interested in objects as touchstones, how they can or cannot hold meaning and preserve history. I’m interested in cultural relativism – how a pair of cowboy boots belonging to an artist can be ephemera for a collector in New York, and at the same time, for two sisters in New Orleans — simply a pair of old boots worn by their brother. Yes, I’m compelled by objects, but even more so, people. And their stories. I’m fascinated by and fear for the worlds inside people, which may vanish if their stories are not told. Film is not an object for me, neither is money (the title of one of my exhibitions) – it’s another form. I try and find the right form for the material at hand. But whatever the form, on a fundamental level, I invest in process and attend to detail. Like Martina, I’m an insomniac, but for very different reasons. I stay up thinking about scenes, shots and even frames. Attending to detail – whether in a drawing or a frame of film – slows down the world in an attempt to really see it. And sometimes a slight shift in perspective, a misapplication of process or form allows you do so. I think that’s the common denominator between Roy, Martina and myself – we all attend to details. There’s a documentary quality to Roy’s work – capturing a specific time and place and language – of a world that’s now long gone. While it is an invented world to a certain extent, overall, I think, it rings emotionally true. Depending on your position, god or the devil is in the details. Maybe both.

Filmmaker: I’ve seen so many art docs that sacrifice either the subject’s sense of style or the director’s but I totally feel like I heard everyone’s creative voice in Missing People. Your slightly stark, punk rock aesthetic is strong with pulsing music, tight montage, candid interviews. How do you balance your own style within a subject that carries its own strong aesthetic?

Shapiro: I make choices about grammar depending upon the film – whether to employ formal, rigorous rules or to be polystylistic – by asking what kind of story am I going to tell, and how am I going to tell it.

Because I conceived Missing People as a double narrative, shuttling between the present and two specific periods and places – 1970s New York and 1990s New Orleans – I worked with editors Becky Laks and Adam Kurnitz to ascribe both an overall narrative tone and pace, and a code-shifting style that could stay true to the material and provide cross-historical context. I worked with music supervisor Adam Oelsner to develop a mix-tape sound design which could also reflect, through music, the tone and tenor of the respective settings and times.

In not sure I would characterize my overall aesthetic as stark and punk, although I came of age in that world, and appreciate it. For Missing People – from the Bagge-Carrino comic Martini Baton, to a New York neo-noir set in 1979 – the punk tones underscore the vibrant presence Martina once felt in the world. “I don’t even remember being alive like that,” she says when looking at a portrait of herself as young woman with a Joey Ramone haircut, a young artist alive and present in the world. I think for every film, tone, tenor and grammar should reflect the subject and intention of the filmmaking.

To your point about hearing everyone’s voice, I think there is meta quality to Missing People – Martina remembers Roy. Roy remembers people in the margins and the architecture of pre-Katrina New Orleans. Martina remembers the same people, now a world wiped away. Martina remembers Jeff. The film (and ultimately, we as viewers) remember – Roy, the people in his work, Jeff, and now sadly, Martina as well. Roy’s sisters, Faye and Michele bonded with Martina not only by remembering their respective brothers, but through actively missing them. So in that sense, I think of Missing People as not only a noun, but a verb.

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