‘Missing People’: Hot Docs Review

Obsessed by a New Orleans artist, a New Yorker confronts the violence in his work and the unsolved murder that has haunted her for most of her life

As one observer notes in the documentary Missing People, buried experiences tend to surface in middle age. For Martina Batan, the fascinating New Yorker at the center of the film, her collaboration with director David Shapiro is a key element in a long-delayed reckoning with a devastating event. Through her love of art, Batan, a gallerist by profession, has sublimated anguish over her brother’s 1978 murder. Shapiro, in turn, has made art of her very personal investigation, through a chronicle that’s intimate, gripping and sharply observed. Art-house potential is strong for this open-ended inquiry into memory and loss, a world premiere selection at Hot Docs.

Before Shapiro’s unblinking but compassionate lens, Batan gradually, painfully confronts the matter that turned her into an insomniac at 18. She has a massive work-in-progress Lego construction to show for her sleepless hours, while the death by stabbing of 14-year-old Jeffrey Batan remains unsolved.

The Bottom Line

Indelible and exquisitely made. 

Eventually, Batan’s investigation will take her back to her childhood neighborhood, the Rego Park section of Queens, and the apartment courtyard where Jeffrey’s body was found. But she gets to that point only by first setting out to solve another, seemingly unrelated mystery, one involving an outsider artist whose work she’s been compulsively collecting since being struck by what a friend calls “a sudden passion.”

With the goal of donating the pieces to a major institution, Batan has amassed a couple of hundred paintings and drawings by Roy Ferdinand, a self-taught man of the New Orleans streets who used markers and children’s paints to depict everyday scenes from his African American neighborhood. Poverty, drugs and crime feature prominently in his pictures. That someone as thoughtful and sophisticated as Batan takes as long as she does to connect the violence in his pictures with the unexamined violence at the center of her life is one of the film’s compelling enigmas. Whether Batan is speaking or responding in silence, the accomplished cinematographer Lisa Rinzler often studies her in intense close-ups that reveal a profusion of conflicting emotions — the complex awakening of someone reaching for something long pushed away.

The filmmakers follow Batan on a couple of trips south to learn more about Ferdinand, who was close to Batan’s age and died of cancer in 2004, after struggles with addiction and homelessness. Shapiro is alert to the polite but wary dynamic between the New Yorker and the artist’s sisters Faye Harris and Michele Ferdinand. It’s not so much a matter of racial tension (the Ferdinands are African-American, Batan Philippine-American) as one of class differences and the aspect of entitlement. Harris’s face freezes when she learns that some of the last items her brother wore are now in Batan’s possession, purchased as “ephemera.” (Jeffrey Batan’s scarf, by contrast, is in a storage locker.)

It takes months for Batan to be able to articulate why she’s drawn to Ferdinand’s images, and it’s a powerful moment when she does. By the time she returns to offer Ferdinand’s hat to his sister, the women have built a bond even as the dynamic among them has shifted in surprising ways. Crucially, the New Orleans women’s openness about their brother’s demons helps to shore up Batan’s resolve to learn what she can about Jeffrey’s death.

Through video excerpts of Ferdinand and his sisters’ loving but clear-eyed reminiscences, he comes into focus: smart and troubled, a self-styled performance artist with a strong political awareness. Batan’s brother, seen briefly in photos and home movies, is, of course, less knowable: an eternal child, if not, it turns out, an entirely innocent one. She recalls “a lightness about him” and shudders to hear the dark, heavy facts uncovered by the private investigator she hires.

New York in the ’70s and ’80s becomes a presence in the doc too, through old news footage about the Queens crime and photos of Batan at the beginning of her adventures across the bridge, in glamorous Manhattan. Editors Becky Laks and Adam Kurnitz deftly weave together the various time frames and locations with a feel for the emotional undercurrent, and music supervisor Adam Oelsner’s judiciously used samples complement the strong camerawork.

Those early photos of Batan attest to her intriguing beauty, vividly encapsulated by a longtime friend, artist David Carrino, as a cross between Wednesday Addams and Holly Golightly. Decades later, she’s compelling in her contradictions: reserved but forthcoming, drawn to beauty and to horror — and, above all, courageous in her readiness to place carefully preserved memories on a collision course with the unknown.

Production company: DoubleParked Pictures
Featuring: Martina Batan, Roy Ferdinand, Faye Harris, Michele Ferdinand, David Carrino
Director: David Shapiro

Screenwriter: David Shapiro
Producers: Alan Oxman, David Shapiro, Michael Tubbs
Director of photography: Lisa Rinzler
Editors: Becky Laks, Adam Kurnitz
Music supervisor: Adam Oelsner  

No rating, 81 minutes