Life Matters Media
Quality of life at the end of life

In Changing Industry, Filmmaker Explores The Times’ Obit Desk

BY DANIEL GAITAN | daniel@lifemattersmedia.org

An arresting new documentary explores the obit writers of the nation’s most prestigious newspaper.

With Obit, director Vanessa Gould goes behind the scenes at The New York Times’ Obituary Desk. The section publishes some of the paper’s best-written and most-read articles – even as the industry moves toward canned click-bait.

Although nobody seeks them out at parties, the legendary writers at The New York Times are surprisingly upbeat, Gould says.

The film – which has received glowing reviews – opens in New York on Wednesday, April 26, at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinema. A national rollout will immediately follow with openings in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, DC, and more throughout May and June.

Gould spoke with Life Matters Media about her hopes and inspiration for the film.

I read that you were inspired to make a film about the Times‘ Obit staff after a friend’s unexpected death. In your first film, Between the Folds, you highlighted origami artist Éric Joisel, who died of lung cancer.

I was never an obituary reader, but about six or seven years ago (Joisel) passed away.

He was a really solitary and reclusive French artist in the northern suburbs of Paris – he mostly lived in poverty and anonymity. But just as he was on the cusp of maybe starting to get the recognition he had been working towards his entire life, he got lung cancer. He died at 53. It happened pretty quickly.

Although I knew he was sick and I knew he was going to die, I didn’t really anticipate the full spectrum of feelings that I would have. I felt like he would be forgotten.

So, the first thing I did was contact many English-language newspapers around the world and inform them of his death. The only paper that wrote me back: The New York Times.

Margalit Fox, who is in the film, ran a beautiful, fitting, contextualizing obituary on this person who a day earlier she never heard of.

The documentarian in me was kind of arrested by the whole thing.

I was surprised to learn there are already draft obits of some celebrities and politicians just in case something happens to them.

It’s a necessity.

They need to have the nimble ability to publish something quickly. They need to invest resources to do that, too.

It’s hard to say, Let’s not write something for today, but let’s use our resources for something that will run in the paper we don’t know when.

They make that determination so that people who are particularly well known or accomplished can get in the paper quickly. Obviously, in this day and age, readers demand them quickly.

Your film is coming out at a weird time for journalism. So many legacy institutions are consolidating and focusing on daily reporting out of necessity. Obits take a long time to write.

It’s such a complicated issue.

I think there are insinuations of that in this film. We didn’t tackle the death of journalism or however you want to put it straight on. But during the time that we were making the film, the L.A. Times laid off its obituary department or dissolved it.

Several other large city newspapers did as well. The fact that the Times remains committed to doing it is a great thing, but you do feel like it’s being done in the shadow of an industry that’s changing.

Have audiences been receptive to your film? Death is still taboo to many Americans.

We certainly tried to include a humor as it’s appropriate. I think humor is appropriate when thinking about death.

I think it has the potential to impact people in different ways. Some people think nothing of death. In fact, some of the writers think nothing of death. Other people naturally take a more melancholy attitude towards it. It is sad that we lose such incredible people.

However, some people think it’s inspiring to read what other people have done. As we see in our culture, there are diverse attitudes towards death and its relationship to life.

The closing line of the film: There’s nothing you can do about dying. 

–– Stay tuned for our full review. ––