I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“What is this? The Sophie’s Choice of creativity?”
Artist and filmmaker, David Shapiro, is a keeper and teller of stories. Through attention to detail, patience, and a methodically intuitive approach, he has produced work in numerous forms. He was inspired to make his award-winning film, Keep The River on Your Right, by a book he found in the garbage. In his new film, Missing People, Shapiro continues his exploration of people’s idiosyncrasies and obsessions through the intersection of art and memory. Missing People is a nonfiction mystery about Martina Batan, the former director of the prominent New York gallery, Ronald Feldman Fine Arts. Off duty, Martina obsessively collects the violent work (and life) of Roy Ferdinand, a little-known self-taught artist from New Orleans. As Martina begins to research Fedinand’s life, she also opens a private investigation into her younger brother’s long unsolved murder (from 1978) and her own demons. As Martina struggles to process the information she has dug up, the inevitable collision of these parallel narratives leads to a chain of dramatic events. Through multiple story lines, art, murder, and a constant searching, Missing People shows us how similar we are in our differences.
David Shapiro This conversation makes sense to me on so many levels because of our common denominators. Most people don’t get it; people are sort of uncomfortable with: “Wait, you do two things?” They don’t like it. People like to have a handle and a pigeon hole.
Alix Lambert Well, maybe that’s a good place to start, because that’s been an albatross for me: “Well, what do you do? What are you?”
DS People can approach creativity on a crass and careerist level. It’s not a calculated plan to climb some corporate ladder, or brand your “product,” when they say, “So you’re an artist and filmmaker. Well it’s probably better if you pick one.” I’m like, What is this? The Sophie’s Choice of creativity?
AL I feel like even within things—say you hypothetically picked filmmaking—even within filmmaking it’s like: “Well, this doesn’t look like your last film. Or why are you doing narrative when you were doing documentary?”
DS That’s exactly right. I don’t want to be narrowly defined by a sort of bandwidth of work—it’s not that I actively try and do different things. I just pursue what I’m engaged in, then life happens. The people whose work I respond to just go with the flow of their own creative engine.
AL Not all stories need to be told in the same way.
DS Of course not. Otherwise it would be a sausage factory. I’m used to playing with form. In my other world, sometimes I make stuff, sometimes I perform stuff, sometimes I write stuff, sometimes I collect stuff—it depends on whatever’s the best form for the work. So it makes logical sense to me to extend that to film. To some extent it comes out of the material; and to some other extent it, I compose it.
AL I agree. First I have an idea of something I want to do, and then the question is: What’s the best way to do it?
DS I’m a very process-oriented artist on many levels, so I believe in committing to learning from the material.
DS And learning from the work. Documentaries are a great form for that, because I do write a script, and I do have a structure and a template—but that said, it’s all the things that happen off the script that end up in the film. I find having a spine for a story really helpful. Do you write a script?
AL I don’t. But I will say that annoys everybody who works with me. I’m not defending the practice. I start with an idea of what it is that I want. I obviously write scripts for narrative work—and I like doing that. I think what you’re saying makes a lot of sense. I’ve met documentary directors who have so overly scripted their films that I feel like asking them: What if you find a story that is not the one you expected?
DS Well, of course, it never ends up like the script.
AL Right, but some people force it into being the script.
DS That’s true. And you can tell when that’s happened. One of the things that compelled me about Missing People was I felt deeply moved—I wanted to put down my camera so many times. What was happening right before the camera was profound. Watching these women navigate their trust and distrust across race and class. All the things that were subtly discussed without being overtly discussed—I felt privileged to witness it, let alone record it. I think there’s a real sense of life happening in a meaningful, unpredictable way—like curve balls coming out of left field. The biggest one, of course, being the end of the film. You could never have written that.
DS I grappled with it, and I wrestled with it, and where you choose to stop filming is always an interesting question. I think I could have made a film without Martina’s stroke, but it would have been a very different one, and I just felt like it wasn’t right. I asked her, at one point, “Would you like me to continue shooting?” It was very difficult, intense, and emotional. You’re watching somebody try to remember; that’s really what I was doing. She said, “Yes.” She’s a formidable woman. I think it diminishes her agency to say she couldn’t make decisions—and that she didn’t know what was going on. She knew what was going on. She had good days and bad days. I ended up shooting a lot of it on my cell phone. Just to have that kind of intimacy—just to have it be about two human beings.
AL How did you meet?
DS She collected my work. I met her at an opening, and she had seen my other films, and she said, “There’s an artist I’m collecting that I think you’d find pretty interesting.” I didn’t know her at all. I didn’t know anything about her history.
AL Can I ask what pieces she collected?
DS I did a series where I redrew fliers by hand—and she bought a bunch of those. They were pretty sublime and kind of cryptic. Fliers can be both generic and personal in equal measure. They’re kind of heartbreaking and funny and sweet and devastating.
AL And of a time.
DS Right. I often work with memory and memorialization. I redrew all my bills and receipts for a year. There’s a quality of living in it, and repositioning it, and making it personal and incredibly generic at the same time. But redrawing barcodes has great power. Somehow.
AL How long ago did you meet?
DS About four years ago. I really didn’t know her. I wasn’t sure what I thought about her. Artists and collectors have a complex relationship. We need each other and dislike each other—we love each other and distrust each other. I didn’t know what I thought of her. She didn’t put a lot on the table at first.
DS She’s also a seasoned art dealer. She knows how to talk about art. She loves art. There was something I connected to in her deep belief in art. Clearly it had some meaning for her, so I went to her studio in Greenpoint, which is in the film, and she had mentioned an artist, Roy Ferdinand, but in a very roundabout way. It peaked my interest—but I had no idea that she owned hundreds of his works. And when I saw them, one by one, each was more arresting and charged than the next. They were so violent and graphic and sexual. Over the top. I was not prepared for that. She believed he’s a great American artist. That was her agenda. “I’m going let the world know about this artist.” I didn’t know his work—I don’t know if you did?
AL I didn’t. Part of the fascination of watching the film is, “Why this artist?” There are a lot of undiscovered talents.
DS She could pick anyone she wanted.
AL You can make some guesses as to what it is that compels us about one artist over another. But who knows? I like that.
DS When I see work that I connect with right away I’m usually connecting to somebody’s idiosyncrasies. That’s what makes us unique. It’s those weird off-register, off-kilter things. Obsessions. Like if you’re obsessed with satellite dishes, or whatever. Plastic, or murder, or a certain fetish, or whatever it is—that’s what’s unique about all of us. And that’s what I was overwhelmed by when I first saw Martina’s studio. And she knew it. I had no intention of making an “outsider art film.” But I was very interested in the work. And the more I heard about the character the more compelled I became. I didn’t really know anything about him; and I didn’t know anything about her. I don’t know if you’ve had this experience—but it was almost like a visceral light switch. I knew there was something rumbling there. I could sense that the connection between Martina and Roy’s work was intense.
AL When did she tell you her own story?
DS About a year later. I just knew there was a personal connection. I feel as if I know when somebody’s wrestling with the desire to spill their heart out—or to hold back and keep it safe. I said, “All right, I’m really interested in Roy’s work. He’s compelling, let’s move forward, but I really want to put you in the film, too. Why do you collect his work?” and she said, “That’s not interesting.” And I said, “No, it is interesting. We’ll figure it out, let’s move forward.” In her mind I think she was thinking: 90% Roy, 10% Martina. And she thought she would just get buried, and end up on the cutting-room floor. In my mind I knew there was something going on—but I didn’t know what. She was very slow to trust and give out information. I was very patient. It took a long time. I said, “Look, I really want to film you in your house.” When you see someone’s home it’s so reflective of the person. It’s an extension of who they are—especially in this city. We’re all living in a synthetic vertical world. She said, “Okay, yeah—we can do that.” It took a year and a half for her to let me into her house. When she finally did there was no art on the walls. There was just this huge LEGO cube in the middle of the room. I bugged out. This is intense. This woman is really wrestling with something profound. And that’s when I started to learn about her brother’s murder. That LEGO cube is an incredible inanimate object, but at the same time, it’s filled with pain and loss and love and life in some bizarre way. It’s solid.
AL You can feel that there is a search for something.
DS You’re complicit at times with the film. Sometimes the film is ahead of Martina; sometimes you don’t know what’s going to happen; sometimes you just want to pull her away and say, “Come on, don’t you see? Don’t you see the connection?” Sometimes people reveal the most incredible details—like three years after you meet them. Nobody ever puts their entire life on the table—except to a bartender.
AL Or a prostitute.
DS A safe place that will have no impact on their life—that’s one of life’s real profound moments.
AL A confession.
DS Exactly. In a box—with a guy behind a curtain. Like when she reveals to the sisters that she is half Filipino. That’s an incredible moment. They look at her anew: Oh, she’s not just this white Manhattanite after all. It was also a way for me to navigate the sisters. I think when they first met me they were like, “Here’s this—for lack of a better term—Jewish guy from hymie-town. He’s got to have a lot of money, and he’s had films on HBO. What does he want from us?” When they came to New York, I took them to my house for dinner, and you know, I have a plywood table. We had macaroni and cheese, and drank a bottle of wine. This is who I am. This is my life. I drove them around in my cop car—I have a Crown Vic. I said, “Look, I really am committed to making this film.” We got to know each other. They were just with me at the New Orleans Film Festival. We had the best time.
AL I like that festival a lot.
DS It’s so good. They’re so kind to the filmmakers and so affirming and inspiring with their programming. And they’re not scared of having fun. It is New Orleans after all. Which film were you there with?
AL A film called Bayou Blue, about a serial killer in Southeast Louisiana. The screening was anxiety provoking because the victim’s family was there.
DS That must have been an intense screening. We had an equally intense screening. I feel like we’re having this chat at a really good time. The two festivals that are bookending our conversation are New Orleans and New York. In New Orleans, the sisters were there. Faye and Michelle. They were deeply moved by the film. There was a passionate discussion about how Roy’s ashes were memorialized. Andy [Roy’s former dealer] had built a voodoo altar for Roy, and the sisters were quite upset about that, because they said that he had found a path to salvation in the end. That was going on in the Q&A, which was intense. At the same time, everyone wanted the same thing, for Roy to be remembered with dignity, and his work to be appreciated.
AL Sometimes I get this question—I’ll have two people in a film with conflicting stories and someone will ask, “Well, who was telling the truth?” I’ll say, “They both are.”
AL It’s an idea of parallel truths.
DS The more sophisticated work that I respond to deals with complexity and ambiguity. It doesn’t offer a simple digestible story. In a documentary, when you have things that don’t necessarily seem like they belong together, that’s called conflict. And that’s life. To my mind, when I structured this film with two parallel stories, I thought that it would live in the gap between them. How do they deal with their grief? What do they feel about art?
AL There’s an amazing moment in the film when Martina wants to return Roy’s hat. And the sisters don’t want it. Martina didn’t want to part with that hat.
DS That’s right.
AL But she felt like it was…
DS …the right thing to do. That was an incredible privilege to watch, and feel the profound emotion and history in an inanimate thing like a hat.
AL For Martina. But the explanation of why it doesn’t have that for the sisters was also profound.
DS It was beautiful. One of the things that I think the film gets at is this: Can objects preserve history? And how do we remember someone? Do we carry around worlds inside that tell people stories? I think, over the course of the film, maybe Faye and Michelle changed their minds. At first they wanted that stuff back. “That’s my brother’s hat. That’s the last thing that we have.” And then they thought about it. It’s human to go through those stages of grief—wanting and longing and anger and sentimentality. A lot of people find art to be confounding or annoying or irrelevant. I don’t think that.
AL I don’t either. I’m often interested in the ripple effect that these kinds of things have more than I am in the initial event. All the lives affected.
DS That’s right. It’s the opposite of salacious media—which is to get the most you can out of showing some horrific thing again and again and again. In fact, it’s the after effect that goes on for decades that colors somebody’s life—their ability to be vulnerable, to be in relationships, to be intimate, to trust, or to love. On a fundamental level it’s devastating.
AL I’m interested—not just on the effects of nurture—but that you can actually pass trauma down genetically from generation to generation.
DS I’m very interested in that—especially with regard to survivors of the Holocaust. The survivors I know—many of them are creative people who try to grapple with it in an abstract way. Anything from a personal narrative to abstract work—they’re trying to make sense of a family history. I can’t imagine losing a child or a brother or a sister. I have two little kids. It would devastate my entire world. And then, watching somebody like Martina, with her memories about her brother. Trying to reconcile her memories with the facts as they come up, especially after she hires the private investigator.
AL That was interesting—the way she phrased it.
DS “It’s interfering with my memories.”
DS We all make work for a reason—and of course we don’t know many of the reasons. I grew up in the ‘70s, in New York, and Jeff [Martina’s murdered brother] could have been me or any of my friends. It’s just the wrong place at the wrong time. We grew up in a volatile world where you would literally take your life in your hands going to a club on the subway. I was out there all the time—my parents had no idea what I was doing. I knew so many people who were dealing weed, and trying whatever, in the tumultuous punk-rock world of transgression and sexual experimentation. Drugs and nihilism vs. Reaganomic mythology. The private investigator, Connor, was also of that same age—and also felt that. I think that’s why he connected on a personal level. He became really immersed in trying to find out what happened.
AL When Martina does find information—I don’t know how satisfying it was for her—maybe the search is the thing.
DS It brings up the idea of closure. I’m not sure that exists. However, I would suggest that for Martina, in this film, when she’s in the yard with all the autumn leaves, where Jeff’s body was found, and she’s looking for something to take away, and it’s a very painful, honest moment, but then she says, “I feel close to him in a way I haven’t for a long time.” You always find a grammar for a film. One of the iconic things is that long shot from far away. We used a lens the size of a tank canon. The idea of somebody up at night, in one of these little ice-cube-tray-apartment buildings, silhouetted, wide awake. The reason many people choose to live like this is for the exuberance and energy and for the anonymity. I think you can feel that in that moment. I took everything I had for that shoot and put it into renting a big lens. We went to a luxury condo under construction three blocks away. I bribed the security guard, because I never would have gotten permission, and couldn’t afford anything. We had walkie-talkies. Real guerilla. I needed that shot because I thought it said so much about contemporary life in this city—and its agency and dehumanization.
Missing People screens at DOC NYC on November 15 and 19, 2015.
David Shapiro’s feature length documentary Keep the River on Your Right (IFC, 2001) won an Independent Spirit Award, the Jury Award at IFDA, the Hamptons, and LAFF. Missing People (2015) won the Jury Award at the Hamptons. He produced Finishing Heaven (2009), which was nominated for an Emmy. As an artist, Shapiro has exhibited his work to international critical acclaim, showing in numerous solo shows in New York, including PS1, the Tate, the Norton and the Brooklyn Museum.
Alix Lambert’s feature length documentary The Mark of Cain was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, received an honorable mention from the French Association of Journalism, and aired on “Nightline.” She has directed and produced two other feature length documentaries; Bayou Blue (made in collaboration with David McMahon) and Mentor. She is currently directing the feature length documentary, Goodbye, Fat Larry. As an artist Lambert has exhibited her work to international critical acclaim, showing in The Venice Biennale, The Museum of Modern Art, The Georges Pompidou Center, and the Kwangju Biennnale, to name a few. She is the author of four books: Mastering The Melon, The Silencing, Russian Prison Tattoos, and Crime.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee