Filmmaker Vanessa Gould began a personal journey in order to understand the cultural and historical significance of obituaries (Obits) after the early passing of author, artist and friend, Eric Joisel. He was a subject in her film Between the Folds.
Gould wanted to honor her friend's life that was cut short. She felt it important to recognize him publicly. But, how? Gould routinely reads The New York Times obituaries. She often noticed that there was something different about the stories featured. They were amazing human stories driven by place, time, history and culture. She wondered if the written word, publicly shared in an obituary, could best acknowledge her friends life.
Gould says, "I wrote to several big English language newspapers around the world and informed them of Eric Joisel's death." She knew most had not heard of him but his accomplishments were significant. Gould continues, "The only newspaper to respond was The New York Times. They ran a beautiful and fitting obituary on him, using photos of him and his work." She notes that his obituary documents and then puts him into a historical record. Joisel's obituary took notice of his life's accomplishments and put a value of significance on the work as well as his person.
In honor of the handful of people who invest their talents in order to make others look good Gould wants to tell their story. She does so in a documentary called OBIT. Gould directs the first documentary ever-made featuring The New York Times editorial journalists who daily write the obituary column. Impressed at the difficulty of their deadline driven job, she presents a compelling narrative of the Times small staff of seasoned writers who practice a "dying" art--no pun intended. "There are only a handful of editorial obituary writers in the world today, and The New York Times has the best of the best," says Gould. She relates to their work because she believes that an obituary is documentary storytelling in print. The three to five obituaries the small staff at The New York Times publishes every day are lives of extraordinary individuals. People who have given of their talents to make a difference in the world.
Gould features obituary writers William McDonald, Margalit Fox, Bruce Weber, William Grimes, Douglas Martin and Paul Vitello for The New York Times in her latest documentary OBIT. Each of these accomplished writers are extraordinary in more ways than simply writing. They all have heart!
In addition to the Obit writers, Gould showcases Jeff Roth who manages more than 100 years of Times archive materials known as the morgue; Jon Pareles who is the Times chief pop music critic; and Dolores Morrison who is the obituaries photo editor. These individuals are vital to bringIng the color to the writers' factual information.
In collaboration with the Obit writers, their amazing stories are enhanced by archived materials found by Roth, Pareles and Morrison. The legendary obit desk at The New York Times functions best as a team. While each obituary is written by one journalist, the added materials allow the one died to live again, sharing an amazing personal narrative with a meager 800 words. No small task. The word count has nothing to do with a death but everything to do with celebrating a life.
William McDonald the Times Obituaries Editor says, "Our subjects have a couple things in common: 1) They've died, and 2) Their lives had an impact on society." Gould's OBIT is a visual oratory. She visually explains the complicated job of the obituary writer.
Basically when someone dies a witness (family or friend) tells a story about the deceased. The Obit journalists acquire the story and write to educate the reader in order to make the dead live again. The challenge is to make sure they have received correct information because the Obit of the person of significance will be officially and historically logged by what is written. A job well done is these writer's reward. Sometimes a sigh of relief! Margaret Fox says, "The job as an Obit writer is new every day." William Grimes says, "I show up to work and ask, 'Who's dead?' "