Q&A: David Shapiro on the Double Narrative of ‘Missing People’

Fifteen years after his debut film KEEP THE RIVER ON THE RIGHT, director David Shapiro returns to HIFF with MISSING PEOPLE. The documentary follows Martina Batan, the director of a prominent New York art gallery as she investigates her young brother’s long unsolved murder. At the same time, she obsessively researches and collects the work of New Orleans artist Roy Ferdinand, whose paintings are known for their violent and graphic content depicting African-American culture in pre-Katrina New Orleans. Martina’s journey is driven by both a hunger for closure and an inexplicable fascination with Ferdinand as an artist and as a loved one to a family she wedges herself into.

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How do you describe MISSING PEOPLE? Its uniqueness makes it difficult to parse.

David Shapiro: MISSING PEOPLE is definitely hard to describe, which, I think, is a good sign of a film which pushes the limits of its form, of what’s possible, in this case, of documentary. A non-fiction mystery told through a double narrative, MISSING PEOPLE allows the audience to find links between two stories and seemingly disparate characters. At times, the film stays ahead of the viewer; you don’t know what’s coming. But other times, the viewer is ahead of the film’s protagonist, Martina; picking up clues, linking cause and effect, you almost want to say, “Come on, I’m waiting for you to make the connection.”

And then there are the curve balls of life, which throw everything for a loop—MISSING PEOPLE has a doozy. This is a true independent film with a complex and compelling woman at its core. At the end of the day, I do think it’s a unique film, of which I’m very proud.

MISSING PEOPLE Martina BatanWhat drew you to Martina? Did you have a personal connection? Did you know about Roy already?

David Shapiro: The “origin story” of a documentary usually has a light switch moment—when you find your next film, or more often, it finds you. I didn’t know Martina. We met at an art opening. I found her to be self-possessed and withholding in equal measure. She told me she liked my other films, and invited me to see some drawings by Roy Ferdinand, a little-known self-taught artist she had been collecting. I wasn’t aware of Roy’s work. “He’s a great American artist,” she said.

The moment I saw Roy’s drawings—charged, graphic, often violent work—the switch flipped. Martina had hundreds of them, way more than I expected. I didn’t know about Martina’s history at the time (about her brother’s unsolved murder) or why she collected Roy’s work en masse—but I trusted my instinct. I felt a film rumbling.

The film tells two parallel stories that have become intricately intertwined. Did you always know you would tell both stories? How did you decide how to balance the two threads?

David Shapiro: I told Martina I wanted to make a film about Roy and why she collected his work. Taking a few months to consider, she finally agreed. I suspect she thought the film would end up 90% Roy, 10% Martina. I wasn’t so sure. I conceived of a double narrative as a form for the film, to tell the story of two people, across race, class and time: Martina and Roy. I trusted that symmetries and connections would begin to surface.

What took place is why documentaries are more compelling than fiction. When it came out that Martina’s brother had been murdered in the 1970s, the case still unsolved, and that Roy was way more than met the eye, the double narrative began to take on a new meaning—a double investigation. I think the film lives in the space between the two stories or investigations. I think of the title MISSING PEOPLE as both a noun and a verb—as representing those who are gone and those, still living, who remember them.

roy-art-grandma-porch 250You are also a visual artist. How does that work affect your filmmaking, and vice versa?

David Shapiro: There are many common denominators between my visual art and documentaries. I make process-oriented work, which usually imposes a rigorous form and attends to detail (in one project, I re-drew by hand, all my bills and receipts for a year). Yet I try to be open to unscripted events, embrace ambiguity and thrive in collapsed borders.

Ultimately, I make work to learn about the world, about people, often through our specificity—our idiosyncrasies and obsessions, which, in so many ways, make us different, interesting and human. They say, “Make what you know.”Well, I’m an artist, and a New Yorker, and depending on who you ask, a character. I’ve made three character-driven films about New York artists. While they’re disparate and distinct, I guess that saying holds truth.

You worked on this film for a long time, as often happens with documentary. How do you know when a story is finished? Can you can ever be sure?

David Shapiro: The creative equation usually includes two variables: time and money. For an independent documentary especially, it’s rare to have both. But there is a silver lining: you really get to know someone over time. Martina is an intelligent woman with tremendous agency. If she did not want to do something she wouldn’t. Believe me. But over the course of four years, we developed a mutual trust and, I think, a commitment to making an honest and emotionally true film.

Events dictated when production finished. Life goes on long after the final frame is shot, but even if you question when to stop, there’s probably something there. By definition, documentaries capture events and people in a time capsule, the length of which is determined by taste and circumstance. Sometimes, you just know, “That was the last shot.”

Missing People Roy Art 5Do you have one piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?

David Shapiro: Don’t wait for approval (from parents or peers) or funding. Make the film that YOU need and want to make, any way you can. With access and connection to a subject, with a distinct point of view and with passion, you can make meaningful work on scraps and fumes. Some people have talent, some don’t. Luck helps. And you have to ask smarties to give you honest feedback.

But at the end of the day, you control one thing: discipline, the commitment to see a work through. Make the film YOU want to make. Nobody can stop you from doing that. F*** them if they don’t like it. Believe in yourself.

What would you like HIFF audiences to take away from your film? What has been the reaction so far? 

David Shapiro: I trust the audience to relish a complex story. And I hope that MISSING PEOPLE tells a compelling story without tying things neatly into a bow, while asking questions and leaving room for viewers to make connections and offer answers, which are often way better than mine.

I’m happy to say, so far, the film’s been receiving rave reviews and generating great audiences. Q&As have been particularly vibrant. (I’ll be at HIFF—and looking forward to that.) I heard from many people I ran into, days after a screening, that MISSING PEOPLE stuck with them. That’s the greatest reward for a filmmaker: to make work that impacts people.

Your film KEEP THE RIVER ON THE RIGHT was a winner at HIFF 2000. What are you most looking forward to in your return to HIFF?

roy-art-guitar 250David Shapiro: I’m so excited to be returning to HIFF with MISSING PEOPLE. (I’ve been back with films I’ve produced and to see and support friends’ work.) HIFF’s always been a great festival, and a local one for me, at least state-wise—I’m a lifelong New Yorker from the Lower East Side. In that light, with a true New York character, art-world content, 1970s archives of the pre-gentrified City, a true crime mystery, and an unmistakable New York vibe… I think THIS audience will really connect to MISSING PEOPLE.

Between screenings, I’ll also be shopping for a mansion overlooking the water.

MISSING PEOPLE will have its East Coast Premiere in Competition at HIFF 2015. Follow the film on Facebook and Twitter. Find tickets.

David Shapiro 300David Shapiro directed, wrote and produced the feature documentaries MISSING PEOPLE (2015) and KEEP THE RIVER ON YOUR RIGHT (IFC, 2001). Based on Tobias Schneebaum’s book, RIVER screened at numerous international festivals, winning major awards including the Independent Spirit Award for Best New Director (2001); Special Jury Award at IDFA (2000); and Special Critics Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival (2000). RIVER was also shortlisted for an Academy Award®. Shapiro wrote and produced FINISHING HEAVEN (HBO, 2009), for which he was nominated for an Emmy.