J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

DOC NYC ’15: Missing People

Classifying the late Roy Ferdinand is a tricky business. Is he a legit fine artist, a marginalized “outsider artist,” or as he labels himself, a reformed “Original Gangster?” Martina Batan is unusually qualified to render a judgement. For thirty years, she has curated shows at a leading Manhattan gallery. Tragically, her family was also the victim of a violent crime. Clearly, Batan has never adequately processed the murder of her youngest brother. However, it is just as evident she gets some sort of cathartic fix from Ferdinand’s often violent and sexualized New Orleans street scenes. Well after their deaths, Batan will try to better understand the fate of both men in David Shapiro’s Missing People (trailer here), which screens during this year’s DOC NYC.

In 1978, Jeffrey Batan was found murdered in the courtyard of a Queens housing project. His shirtless body had been repeatedly stabbed. Technically, his unsolved case remains open. Batan and her immigrant Filipino-American parents were ill-equipped to deal with the brutality and senselessness of the crime (perhaps it is telling no other Batan family members appear in Missing). Yet despite the hip, sarcastic persona Batan cultivated, she remained haunted by her brother’s murder. For reasons that escape her, Batan starts obsessively collecting and cataloging Ferdinand’s work, hoping to establish his proper place in the canon of American art. Around the time of her first visit to Ferdinand’s sisters in the Crescent City, she also hires private investigator Conor McCourt to probe her brother’s case.

Granted, the NYPD was nearly overwhelmed with crime in the late 1970s, but their image still takes a beating in Missing. In contrast, McCourt inspires plenty of professional confidence. The 1978 case could not be any colder, but he still uncovers considerable pertinent information. Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, there will not be anything remotely resembling closure in the film.

Frankly, Shapiro and editors Becky Laks and Adam Kurnitz deserve a great deal of credit for shaping the documentary into a dramatic narrative, given their third act challenges. Nevertheless, as awkward as it is to say, Batan is often a problematically frustrating focal point. She frequently seems willfully oblivious of her own hang-ups and obsessive behavior, whereas viewers can immediately dash off an armchair diagnosis that will hold-up pretty darn well.

Still, the details of Ferdinand’s bluntly powerful art and McCourt’s investigation are fascinating. Archival interviews with the artist also add quite a lot of grit and a bit of panache. He certainly played his part to the hilt. However, Batan’s angst is the bond holding the disparate pieces together, which makes for some uneasy connective sequences. Still, it is an impressive example of a documentary filmmaker dealing with an awful curveball. Recommended with limited reservations for connoisseurs of outsider art and fans of sophisticated true crime, Missing People screens this Sunday (11/15) at the Bow Tie Chelsea and Wednesday (11/18) at the IFC Center, as part of DOC NYC.

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