A Belated 2015 NOFF Report

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The 26th Annual New Orleans Film Fest stretched across the city about a month ago & I’m finally getting around to submitting this better-late-than-never journal of my experience. My relationship with the festival is usually fairly removed, amounting to a single screening a year. It’s typically where I catch limited release indies that played months earlier in larger cities before they arrive at Netflix purgatory. It’s where I first saw the grossout romcom Wetlands, the grossout grossout Human Centipede 2, and the not-gross-at-all documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. This year, on the other hand, I was up close & personal with the festival. I’m currently working at a movie theater that serves as a NOFF venue, so the fest literally swirled around me on a daily basis during its run. I’d liken that experience to what it might be like if a small mom & pop record store were used as a venue for a large music festival one week out of the year. It’s pretty intense. More importantly, though, I actually exceeded my quota & got to see triple my usual amount of NOFF screenings this year. It’s far from what more dedicated attendees gobbled up while they had the chance, but I’m still proud of myself for making the effort. The three movies I saw have already been covered on the site, but here’s a quick report of how the screenings went.

The very first screening I caught was the Roy Ferdinand documentary Missing People at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art’s Howard Memorial Library. If you’ve never seen that space before, you should really check it out as soon as you get a chance. It’s a gorgeous room, one I’ve seen at various poetry readings & museum-curated events, but never fail to be impressed by. Watching a movie about fine (outsider) art in that context elevated the material a great deal, especially since the Ogden is one of the few venues in New Orleans that still displays Ferdinand’s work & is located mere blocks away from some of the film’s establishing shots. Also strengthening the atmosphere was a post-film Q&A featuring the documentary’s director David Shapiro, the owner of Barrister’s Art Gallery Andy Antippas, and the deceased Ferdinand’s surviving sisters. The director added some context of interest, especially in the details of his relationship with the film’s other subject, art collector & Ferdinand enthusiast Martina Batan. Shapiro had first met Batan when she collected a piece of his work & it took two full years of knowing her before she trusted him to film in her Brooklyn apartment. He also revealed that Batan’s real-life MRI scans were included in the film & that the word “missing” in the title was meant to be read as a verb & a noun. Ferdinand’s sisters were even more fascinating, though, however sad. They joked about Roy’s claim about being an OG in the film, but mostly they lamented that they never had a chance to collect their brother’s work (and had seen most of if for the first time while watching the film) and argued with Antippas about how Roy’s ashes (which they donated to Barrister’s) are currently displayed in a Voodoo alter instead of a Christian display. It was a little awkward, as was Antippas’ nitpicking of the film’s Batan-Ferdinand content balance, but it was also a fascinating, one-of-a-kind experience.

Just a couple hours after Missing People concluded, I zipped Uptown to catch a BYOB, midnight screening of John Carpenter’s The Thing at the Prytania Theatre. Although it technically wasn’t an official NOFF screening, it directly followed one & the crowd very much felt in the festival spirit. It was somehow my first time ever seeing The Thing, as I’ve mentioned before, and that communal, loopy, nearing-2am atmosphere was more or less the perfect introduction to the immortal creature feature. After watching the film a second time in dead-sober daylight, I’m perfectly willing to declare it a masterpiece & am proud to have it included in The Swampflix Canon. It only sweetens the deal that I pushed through after the Missing People screening (and a boozy intermission at The Kingpin) to catch it on the big screen.

The next NOFF screening I caught was the second & final showing of Driving While Black at the Theatres at Canal Place. The movie itself was hilarious & politically provocative, playing very well with a large crowd (as opposed to watching comedies in the silent room of at-home streaming). The post-screening Q&A with director Paul Sapiano, however, was more or less fruitless. The questions were less frequent, less enthusiastic, and less interesting than they were at the Missing People screening. This might’ve had something to do with Sapiano’s visible fatigue with self-promotion, which was gradually edging towards open hostility. There were some interesting revelations nonetheless, even if they were mere confirmations of things I had already assumed. For instance, he & the film’s lead actor Dominique Purdy started writing the film as a comedy, but it took a much darker turn from there in terms of tone. Also, Purdy improvised a lot of his own lines, while Sapiano was responsible for the majority of the racist cops’ dialogue. Makes sense to me. I also liked Sapiano’s confession that, “I get bored easily in movies, so I like to keep things moving,” when questioned about the movie’s pace. Otherwise, the screening was mostly significant due to the game-to-laugh audience & the accompaniment of a short film titled Traction, which more or less amounted to a 5min one-liner about mock outrage vs. true-life racism. I found myself wishing after the screening that Purdy were there to answer questions instead of Sapiano & I doubt the director himself would disagree with that sentiment. He seemed pretty exhausted with the process.

The third & final screening I caught this year was on the closing night of the festival. I made it out to Chalmette Movies for Goodnight Mommy, an Austrian art house horror film that I had been itching to see since Boomer reviewed it for the site. Because of that review’s warnings I spotted the film’s (admittedly overblown) plot twist long before its third act revelation, but I still wasn’t prepared for the gruesome violence ahead of me. For a film so crisp & so beautiful, it’s surprising how willing Goodnight Mommy is to devolve into schlocky brutality, setting its creepy children antagonists free to gruesomely torture a woman they believe is not their mother, but an imposter. As with Driving While Black, it was great to see the film with a full-capacity audience, as their discomfort (along with my own) with the film’s intense, intimate violence was very much audible. It was a great way to close out the fest for me, personally, because it took me back to the uncomfortable squriming of my past NOFF experiences with Wetlands & Human Centipede 2. I have no idea if I’ll be able to squeeze in as many screenings next year as I did this time, but I hope to have at least one of those uncomfortable group experiences again if possible. There’s an incredible sense of camaraderie that comes from surviving screenings like that as a group, especially when the audience is caught off-guard by what’s coming (let’s face it; film fest audiences can paradoxically be both stuffy & unassuming). Those are the experiences I live for & this year wouldn’t have felt complete without one, so it was a perfect note to end on.

-Brandon Ledet

Missing People (2015)

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I first heard of the visual artist Roy Ferdinand when I attended his one-man show In Your Fucking Face at Barrister’s Art Gallery (when it was still on Oretha Castle Haley) sometime in 2004, As the title of that show suggests, Ferdinand’s work is aggressively crude & transgressive, assembling a unique document of New Orleans at the height of the city’s fever pitch crime rates in the 90s & 00s. An self-taught, outsider artist along the lines of a Henry Darger or a Daniel Johnson, Ferdinand drew portraits of the city & its inhabitants at their most cruel & vulnerable moments. His art is somehow both immediately digestible & impossible to ever shake once seen. The imagery sticks with you in a deeply affecting way, both in its violence’s absurdity & honesty, despite a lack of honed technical skills you’d expect from a more traditionally trained artist.

Roy Ferdinand may have been a somewhat financially successful artist, but he’s far from a household name & information on his personal life is scarce at best. That’s why I was stoked to discover that a documentary about Ferdinand was screening at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art as a part of the 2015 New Orleans Film Fest. Super stoked. Indeed, Missing People was a rare chance to see interview footage of Roy Ferdinand talking about himself, his city, and his art. However, it was far from the film that I was I expecting. Instead of being a documentary about Ferdinand outright, Missing People follows the story of Martina Batan, an art collector & curator who obsessively amassed hundreds of Ferdinand’s pieces for reasons that even she had difficulty understanding. It would be incredible to see a documentary strictly about Ferdinand & his work, but Missing People is not that film. Instead, it serves as a document about the way his art can deeply affect someone in a personal way. And after seeing the film it’d be difficult to argue that it’s ever affected anyone nearly as much as it has Martina Batan.

Described by a close friend & comic book artist Dave Carino as “a cross between Wednesday Adams & Holly Golightly”, Martina Batan was once a young art student with a Joey Ramone haircut in NYC’s highly influential late 70s punk era. The polaroids depicting her energetic youth are a stark contrast with her current life as a middle age divorcee & professional art curator. Living alone with two elderly dogs in Brooklyn, NY, Baton is a deeply depressed, anxious soul, one that rarely sleeps or, ostensibly, enjoys herself. One thing that haunts Batan in an ever-increasing intensity is the decades-old violent stabbing death of her teenage brother, a tragedy that tore her family to shreds. One of the ways Batan processes her grief over the loss of her brother, of course, is through collecting Roy Ferdinand’s artwork.

Batan first discovered Ferdinand while volunteering in New Orleans’ post-Katrina recovery shortly after the artist’s premature death in 2005. She soon became possessed with the task of collecting what she describes as “a greatest hits” of the artist’s work. Although Missing People is by no means a straight-forward documentary on Ferdinand & his art, it does feature hundreds of his pieces, by far the most I’ve ever seen, thanks to Batan’s tireless obsession as a collector. Besides the drawings, Batan also collected various ephemera from Ferdinand’s life, including a cowboy hat, boots, and unwashed socks Ferdinand’s two living sisters had entrusted to the owner of Barrister’s Gallery (a detail spookily echoed in Batan’s collection of her slain brother’s similar ephemera). Speaking of Ferdinand’s sisters, as a pair they offer one of the few points of insight into the deceased artists’ life & personality, outside stray interview footage of Roy in 1997, a few anecdotes from Barrister’s Gallery owner and, of course, the work itself. Roy’s sisters are particularly endearing in their dismissive laughter after hearing their brother describe himself as “an OG retired”. Whether or not roy was a certifiable “original gangster”, his self-declared role as a “journalist” & a “documentarian” that lead him to record “simple portraits of neighborhood characters” suggests that he at least had some kind of first hand experience with New Orleans’ crime element. As Roy himself puts it, he felt compelled to depict “guns, drugs, violence, and church” in his work because that’s what happens in a city where you constantly see “cops shooting at drug dealers, drug dealers shooting at cops, drug dealers shooting at each other.” Leave the scenic streams & meadows to the artists who live where that’s the reality. Although Roy’s sisters couldn’t corroborate his self-image of a “retired” hard criminal, they did admit that he often sold his paintings as a means to support his crack cocaine habit, saying “When he did his most eye-popping pieces, he was high as a kite.”

Not enough is really known about the “true” Roy Ferdinand to support a full-length documentary in the traditional sense (not that I wouldn’t love to see someone try). As one interviewee puts it, Roy was somewhat of a “performance artist”, adapting to many personas over the course of his lifetime: cowboy, voodoo practitioner, crack addict, fine artist, limo driver, French Quarter eccentric Chicken Man’s “official bodyguard”, etc. Although Missing People makes little to no attempt to offer a full portrait of the artist as a man, it does wonders to establish his role as a docuementarian. Roy explains the reasons he depicts the victims of horrible acts of violence is to preserve their likeness beyond being a mere headline in a news story. He says, “If it wasn’t for me, nobody would remember that these people existed.” Perhaps that sentiment is the essence of Martina Batan’s personal connection with Ferdinand’s work, seeing as how her long-deceased brother suffered a similar fate to many of Roy’s subjects, just in New York instead of New Orleans. The movie offers little in the way of answers.

As Martina struggles with her brother’s mysterious death, with her own failing health, and with an uneasy relationship with Roy’s sisters (who are justifiably suspicious & jealous of her collection of their brother’s work), Missing People paints a bleak, complicated picture. Much like Roy Ferdinand’s artwork, the documentary is painfully honest in an absurdly open, vulnerable way, refusing to play by the rules. Missing People documents the life of a great, little known artist not by offering a traditional biography, but instead focusing its attention on a few people still actively engaged with his work a decade after his passing. It works in the same way that Room 237 revealed a lot about the power of ambiguity in Kubrick’s The Shining by exploring the crackpot theories the film inspired instead of documenting the production of the film itself. As I said, as a fan of his work I would love to watch a proper, full-length documentary about Ferdinand (if that’s even possible), but that’s not at all what Missing People is aiming for. Instead, Roy is just the connective tissue in a story about the people living in his wake. It’s a bold & often frustrating choice, but in a lot of ways the film is more fascinating & satisfying for it.

-Brandon Ledet