Missing People: chasing a mystery from 70’s New York to present New Orleans

On View at the DOC-NYC Festival: Missing People is a documentary that explores a 32 year old murder mystery. Queen's-born filmmaker, David Shapiro, takes viewers on a journey from New York to New Orleans and brings together two seemingly unrelated worlds through the shared memories of the sisters left behind.  / Leggi in italiano

Now on view at DOC-NYC, Missing People, a documentary, opens in 1978 with the murder in Rego Park of 14 year old, Jeff Batan. That act sets in motion the beginning of an odyssey for his sister, Martina. 32 years later, she is still not sleeping. She roams the streets at night.  And she fiddles listlessly with a lego set, all the while trying to make sense of a senseless act of violence. During the day, she is the director of the Ronald Feldman Fine Arts Gallery in New York City.  But her real obsession is the life and art of Roy Ferdinand, a New Orleans artist who died in 2004; and whose work depicts the lives of African-Americans in pre-Katrina New Orleans.   

This non-fiction mystery links these seemingly unrelated worlds when Martina journeys from New York to New Orleans to meet Roy’s sisters, and to see the places that inspired his art. She gradually forms a bond with the women, who are at first, suspicious of her motives. But as they begin to share stories about their brother, a fragile relationship develops and a fuller picture of Roy emerges.  At the same time, Martina’s own conflicted emotions begin to surface; and she eventually hires a private investigator to re-open Jeff’s case.  What emerges is a combination of on-screen therapy session, road trip, and the interweaving of two stories, two untimely deaths, and two cities.  

New York in the late 70’s was a dangerous place. And director David Shapiro captures that dark reality with shots of empty, weed-filled lots, long-gone Americana like Winther’s Luncheonette and beautifully framed exteriors of dilapidated buildings. 90’s New Orleans is also featured through the art of Roy Ferdinand. Colorful, violent and sexually graphic, the work gives us an insider’s view of crime, drugs, and rampant poverty. 

But it’s the editing on this film that really gives the story life and purpose. The long, silent close-ups on Martina’s and the sisters’ faces seem to burn into their souls and reveal years of pent-up anger, sorrow, and understanding. And as new and disturbing elements of the story emerge, they are skillfully integrated into the narrative.  

I also love the duality of the name, Missing People. Martina’s brother was and is missing from her life as is Roy from his sisters’ lives; and both Martina and Roy’s sisters are missing their brothers … both actively and passively.  

This is not an easy film to watch.  It’s not pretty, there is no “happy ending”, and the characters are not always appealing.  But there is a grit and realism here that is affecting and had me on an emotional roller-coaster. Ultimately, instead of being a study in death and depression, the film becomes life-affirming.

David Shapiro wrote, produced, and directed this film; and calls himself a proud, native New Yorker.


Missing People screens on Sunday, November 15th (Bow Tie Cinema) and Wednesday, November 18th. (IFC Center).

Watch the trailer>>

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