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Screening Notes: Recovering Life in Writing about Death: Obit at the Tribeca Film Festival

April 21, 2016 | Aaron Linskens
Image Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Image Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Crafting an obituary is not a somber process at The New York Times. An entire editorial department makes daily attempts to give proper sendoffs to individuals who have left a lasting impression at a point in history. With only a line or two regarding the cause or the family’s confirmation of death, the Times obituaries use the majority of column inches to report on the life of the deceased. Filmmaker Vanessa Gould, with her rare behind-the-scenes access to the Times obituary department, explores this craft in her documentary Obit, which received its world premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.

While the section has posthumously highlighted the lives of cultural icons such as Michael Jackson and David Foster Wallace, it more frequently features pieces on lesser-known people who nonetheless had an effect on the period in which they lived. Two such cases frame Obit’s narrative as writers Bruce Weber and Paul Vitello cull together the stories of William P. Wilson, who was the first television consultant hired for a political campaign and proved instrumental in the Nixon-Kennedy debate, and Dick Rich, who “helped redefine TV advertising” through memorable commercials and ad campaigns.

In addition to archival footage of featured obituary subjects, including Joseph Stalin’s daughter, a man who rowed solo across an ocean, and the bombardier who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Gould peppers Obit with one-on-one interviews with members of the Times staff. None of the obituary writers are the type of cub reporters fresh out of j-school, hired as a cost-cutting measure to replace seasoned veteran reporters. Instead, most of them could probably talk about what it was like growing up in the 60s and each seems to have been raised on a diet of print journalism.

Gould, who received a Peabody Award for Between the Folds, a documentary exploring the art of origami, brings a type of Errol Morris intimacy to the film as her interviewees stare down the barrel of the camera while extemporizing, seemingly without need of a directorial nudge. Gould also paces the film through her use of the staff members’ longer and meandering anecdotes and thoughts describing the legwork required to write about the recently deceased and to prepare advanced obits for those in their autumn years.

Margalit Fox, senior writer for the Times and holder of more than 1,200 obituary bylines, explains how her department works in “a retrospective genre.” While obituary writers look back through the 20th century to spotlight individuals who had opportunities to make cultural marks, the Times coverage also has a deficiency of stories on women and minorities. When asked to explain that lack, Fox maintains, “Ask me again after another generation.”

While following the sometimes lengthy trails of evidence and research, the obituary staff still operates in a daily newspaper with deadlines at the end of the workday. Through a combination of history, research, news, and conversations with a subject’s friends and family, a Times obituary attempts to demonstrate a single person’s historical impact and relevance in today’s society. An example of an individual’s influence on 20th century history, whether it’s in the form of a presidential debate or a commercial, a photo or a television show, provides a callback to the reader’s own time and place when he or she first heard of that event.

By remembering where one was, how they became who they are, and how society changes over time, a person can find the past in the present and the present in the past. In that sense, looking at human existence through the lens of an obituary is not about what was lost but how life can flourish.

By Aaron Linskens

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