DOC NYC 2015: 'Left on Purpose' + 'Missing People'
These two films at DOC NYC look at loss and memory, trauma and generosity.
Missing PeopleDirector: David Shapiro
Cast: Martina Batan, Faye Harris, Michele Ferdinand, Conor McCourt, Sean Ellwood, David Carrino, Andy Antippas, Regina Perry, Bill Sasser, Ronald Feldman, Frayda Feldman
Studio: DoubleParked Pictures
US date: 2015-11-15 (DOC NYC 2015)
"The film is trying to remember everybody."
"You know, the people that you see stretched out or standing up, hanging out or whatever, I mean those are actual people. I guess if it wasn't for what I do, nobody would ever know these people existed. And that's one of the important things in life, for somebody to acknowledge that you're there." The New Orleans artist Roy Ferdinand appears in a video interview as he describes why he documents what he sees on the streets, the violence and the victimization, the survival and the loss.
Ferdinand's ambition is admirable, and poignant, too, given that his interview appears in the documentary Missing People as part of an archive, a way to look back on the life and work of an artist lost to cancer in 2004. David Shapiro's film, premiering at DOC NYC on Sunday 15 November, pulls together multiple strands of memory, as Ferdinand's sisters meet with a curator, Martina Batan, who's collecting his art with the hope of donating it to a museum. Martina's own story -- she lost a 14-year-old brother to murder when she was young -- provides another context for the film's contemplation of memory as an idea and an experience, at once sustaining and traumatic.
Such contemplation also grounds Justin Schein and David Mehlman's Left on Purpose, screening at DOC NYC on Friday 13 November. Here Schein and his subject, former Yippie activist Mayer Vishner, talk through concerns similar to Ferdinand and Batan's, namely, how and why you might document a life and death, as well as effects on people left behind. Mayer is recalled early in Left on Purpose as a vibrant, brilliant activist, an absolute believer in human dignity and civil rights. Black and white photos show Mayer with Jerry Rubin, Paul Krasner, and Abbie Hoffman, while Schein extols their political theater for being as pointed as it is apparently antic.
Even as Schein makes clear his interest in Mayer, how he is "drawn to him", from the first scene, he also reveals that he is "troubled" by his subject. Your first view of Mayer suggests why: he's plainly drunk, his eyes clouded and his speech slurred, reaching for Coos Light 40 as he hears out Schein's worry over "the ethics of documenting someone who's not necessarily capable of giving their consent." Mayer nods, "You have my consent. If we proceed with this project at any length, this will not be the toughest ethical question we'll confront."
The "we" here is increasingly vexed in every kind of way. While Mayer goes on to explain what he means, that he plans to kill himself, and Schein goes on to talk his possible complicity through with his wife and producer Eden, as well as Mayer's friends and at least one doctor on camera, your own part in this process can't help but be complicated.
Mayer has a long history of depression and substance abuse, but at this point in his 62 years on the planet, he says that he's "dying of loneliness". Unable to sort out whether Mayer is using the movie to stay alive, record a last and most profound political act, or to "create the last installment of his archive." Schein, who has a family and a life apart from this all-consuming project, tells his subject, "I respect what you're going through, but I don't want to see this end with your corpse." Even as he says it, "we" understand this is pretty much the only possible end.
And so the film records a series of choices, pondered, contextualized, discussed, as Schein keeps looking for ways to present his with subject "options". This as Mayer insists he has none, or rather, that the he's chosen the one he wants. This means that Schein, Mayer's friends, and viewers too are left to struggle with coming to respect that choice, to see it as one he's capable of making, or to understand how our judgment is framed and rendered. This in the intricate contexts of our own empathy, the limits of what we can know of someone else's experience. Left on Purpose doesn't provide answers so much as it shows possible responses to shifting and difficult questions.
Missing People's meditation on loss is equally perplexing. As Martina pursues her quest to assemble Ferdinand's work, she travels from New York to New Orleans to meet with his sisters, Michele and Faye, who both view her skeptically at first. You know what they don't, that Martina associates Roy's images with her brother Jeffrey's brutal death, and her own lingering trauma, manifesting as insomnia and OCD, including a fixation on a Lego cube she's building for years. The film makes effective use of Martina's spaces, her artistic sensibility and her gift for curating.
If you think about curating as a means to create order, you might see how it makes a particular sense for Martina to be so good at it. Her employers at the Ron Feldman Galleries note her talents and observe how they might emerge from such a need. The film follows her search, as she and her acquaintances perform it, Roy's sisters looking at the camera to raise an eyebrow when they're uncertain of her, or Martina's tears when she confides in them -- and later, again, to the camera (and you) -- how she sees her own pain and chaos.
Late in the film, Marina tells her friend, artist David Carrion, that she means to hire a private investigator to look at her brother's unsolved case so many years later. He lays out for you how perfect this seems to him: "That's why I was like, 'Make a movie, yes, hire a private investigator,' if you have not been able to sleep since you were eighteen."
Here again, investigation and exposure don't so much resolve questions as illuminate them, make them visible and plainly articulated, shared. Even as Mayer describes himself as dying of loneliness, he's helping to reveal a condition that's familiar.
The questions Mayer poses, how to engage, how to help, how to make life better for those around you, are questions you might ask as well. And, as much as both Left on Purpose and Missing People show their broad interests in the expansive titles, titles that offer shifting verbs and nouns, referents and allusions, so too you see into lives and deaths, through art and surfaces, as they offer order and disorder, ways of remembering and letting go.