When director Vanessa Gould sent a biography of French artist and friend, Eric Joisel, to newspapers around the globe after his death and only received a response from The New York Times, her appreciation for the obituary truly began, as did her newest documentary ‘Obit.’ The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 17 as part of the ‘Spotlight’ lineup.
‘Obit’ is a film that credits not only crusaders in our culture that have passed on, but also those who write about them. Tasked to sum up a life by their 6pm deadline without full knowledge of who their subject will be the morning of, the editorial obituary department’s responsibility of relaying the legacy of prolific individuals holds a pressure, and a privilege, all its own.
Gould and her team spent about five days shooting in the obit newsroom in preparation for this film, with the liberty of their content up to the chance of the day. Like a fly on a wall, the crew was able to capture unique moments in the lives of obituary writers and editors, respectful not to disrupt their daily operations and therefore capture an honest portrayal of the department’s work. The remaining days were spent with writers in their homes. “We wanted to show these people in a new, special light,” Gould said during a Tribeca Q&A. “So the film curated itself in a way.”
What is seen is not morbid or depressing in most cases. In fact, the candidness that runs through these obituaries translates similarly in film form. Realistic in our mortality and just as scared by death as the rest of us, these writers share the admiration they hold in their work, but also the liberation in creating expressive portraits of the dead in a way that emphasizes their life. As writer William Grimes says, “You’re trying to write a story, not delivery a resume.”
From Robin Williams and Amy Winehouse to the inventor of the slinky and Joseph Stalin’s daughter, the variety of obituaries highlighted in ‘Obit’ also gives the audience an opportunity to recognize the volume of work that the staff is responsible for and the magnitude of the task when much of the world is aware of the deceased or soon will be, at The Times’ hands. When you have to run an obit on the sudden death of Michael Jackson in four hours in the same week as a more-anticipated Farrah Fawcett, that’s a busy week.
But sometimes there is material ready to go, like in the case of Ronald Reagan’s attempted assassination not even three months into his presidency. Having had nothing prepared the first time around, at the time of his death in 2004, the paper involuntarily had some notes under their belt. In the case of an actual advance, The New York Times understands the inevitable and prepares for certain passings by assigning obituaries before they’re actually needed for print.
A fascinating aspect of the paper’s obit section is the “morgue” as it’s called. Its keeper, archive manager Jeff Roth, tours through the thousands of drawers and files containing impossible amounts of news clippings and photographs used in these obituaries that have one chance to run with the right materials. A charismatic man in his land of coveted organized chaos, his collection is an art form in its own right. As he mentions with a practical shrug while looking at an old photograph, if you file something wrong, it’s gone.
The challenges of an obit writer or editor are not few. Making deadlines, fighting writers block like any writer, fact checking so as to not make a mistake that can’t be changed after print, creating language that isn’t Hallmark but vivid in relaying an entire life, and wishing that their subjects were not literally out of touch. Accepting the unique situation of their department, Douglas Martin says, with faint disappointment, “You never meet them by definition.”
Helping to erase taboos about death, ‘Obit’ brings the art of encapsulating an individual’s history to life. From athletes and businessmen to hard-hitting sudden deaths like author William Foster Wallace’s suicide, ‘Obit’ reveals the world that immortalizes shakers of a generation, large and small. As said in the film, “life is not a simple arch,” and ‘Obit’ makes that very clear.
To learn more about this film at Tribeca, visit the festival’s site here.