A curious intersection between violent, crack-epidemic-era New Orleans ghetto life and the uppermost strata of Manhattan’s art gallery world lies at the center of “Missing People.” David Shapiro’s first directorial feature since the very different “Keep the River on Your Right” (2000) offers a tangled tale of mortality, obsession, creativity and acquisition, as well as the kinds of shared personal grief that can bond otherwise greatly dissimilar people. Hard to encapsulate yet sure to engross audiences who find their way to it, this nonfiction character study/mystery should excite interest on the fest circuit, with tube, download and possible niche theatrical sales to follow.
Martina Batan was a Manhattan art school student in 1978 when her 14-year-old brother was found stabbed to death outside an apartment complex in their native Queens, having never returned home from a nearby diner the night before. The tragedy tore apart their surviving family (though no Batans other than Martina are interviewed here).
Decades later, she’d risen to become director of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, a prestigious institution that has represented some of the leading visual artists of recent decades. But even the Feldmans themselves admit there remains something guarded and mysterious about their longtime protegee/employee. When we meet Batan, she’s newly divorced, confessing she finds the company of her dogs more manageable than any human intimacy.
Plagued by nightmares and insomnia since her brother’s demise decades earlier, she compulsively builds a massive Lego cube in her living room on sleepless nights — one of several OCD-type behaviors. Another is her collecting of drawings by the late New Orleans “original gangster” (or so he claimed) Roy Ferdinand, who before his 2004 death turned to making blunt, technically unpolished yet powerful depictions of life in his ‘hood. They offer a panorama of violence: police-inflicted, domestic, drug- and gang-related, all bent on annihilating a fragile African-American community.
While seemingly no one else in the art world has picked up on this “outsider” talent to date, Batan is determined to push him posthumously into the limelight. Her fixation eventually pulls her to the Big Easy, where she meets Ferdinand’s sisters. Communication is wary at first, with the surviving sibs uncertain just what this upscale New Yorker’s intentions are. But once they drag some confidences out of her, the women realize they have some potent overlaps in their histories of familial dysfunction and loss.
This breakthrough somehow emboldens Batan to hire a private investigator to probe her brother’s never-solved murder. Though the original police detectives have since passed away, the P.I. nonetheless uncovers significant new info. Those revelations are often jarring, however, and the stress of learning perhaps more than she can handle after suppressing the trauma all these years ultimately drives the pic and its protagonist to a very dramatic late twist of fate.
Woven throughout these evolving intrigues is video footage of Roy Ferdinand himself, a man with compulsions and demons of his own whose latest reinvention as a colored-pencil-sketching journalist/historian to an embattled community ended before he found more than minor, local recognition. Shapiro and collaborators adeptly weave these complex threads to build suspense and spring several narrative surprises. Reflecting Batan’s personality, the tone juggles an intellectual reserve and a droll taste for the macabre with more straightforward, poignant human interest.
Expert assembly is particularly well served by a fine soundtrack of (mostly) new multi-artist cuts that sound like buried nuggets from the protag’s formative years in New York’s fertile multimedia punk/New Wave underground.