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by Karen Pecota

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?' "