★★★ / ★★★★
Although a documentary about the process of writing obituaries for the New York Times, “Obit.” is far from being about death. Its focus is on the colorful lives of the people who died, the writers who are tasked to write 400- to 800-word obituaries for the next day’s paper, and, in a way, ourselves—our own journeys, our accomplishments, the goals we have yet to achieve. Director Vanessa Gould helms a celebratory documentary, one filled with humor, energy, figures who have at least one interesting thing to show or say about their jobs or pieces they’re working on, and a reminder that life is long until it isn’t.
It takes us through the process of writing obituaries. We meet the writers. Names followed by faces. I enjoyed that we get to know them mainly through how they work, not necessarily only when they turn toward the camera and answer questions. Notice that not ten minutes into the picture, we observe writers simply doing their jobs, like picking up the telephone to interview loved ones of those who died—we listen to the sorts of questions asked and how. The camera is right there as names are jotted down, boxes are filled, and notes are written on margins.
We get a sense of the writers’ culture and therefore their passion for their jobs. (We even learn about the line of work they hoped to get into, or did get into, when they were younger.) Many of them, if not all, sit in front of their computers to write obits that capture the way their subjects lived their lives—a way of honoring them beyond the pages of a renowned publication. They make a point not to write old-fashioned, predictable, boring obituaries. We even watch them getting up from their desks to fetch yet another cup of coffee as the six o’clock deadline looms. They smile. Perhaps by nature or for the camera. But look a little closer and capture the exhaustion in their bodies, their eyes. Some are required to work over time or during weekends. (Turns out death doesn’t take breaks even on weekends.)
We are provided more details. Who makes it to the obit section of the New York Times? People who made an “impact” on the world, it turns out, from a politician that prompted the fall of 20th century Russia, John F. Kennedy’s TV aide (who is later credited by Kennedy himself for his electoral victory over Richard Nixon), an adman for Alka-Seltzer, to the inventor of the Slinky.
But impact proves relative. Which would you rather read about first: the person who invented the Slinky or a leader with a strange-sounding name who lived in some faraway land? The work follows this playful format: facts by way of words and images then allowing us, the viewers, to consider how such facts fit into the big picture of obituary writing. And then that big picture is approached from a different angle—the business side of publishing. (Although the work touches upon competition in terms of readership, it refrains from digging deep.)
A curious and amusing vignette involves The Morgue, a place that contains so many files of the dead (and those have yet to die—“advance obits”) that hundreds of cabinets filled with folders, paperworks, and pictures were never moved to the new NYT building. The lively Jeff Roth takes us on a grand tour. It is impossible not to watch wide-eyed with a silly grin plastered on your face. The place is so old-fashioned, a musty smell can be detected every time a drawer is opened. It is an impressive place—one that offers a treasure trove of history should one bother to look—but it is in desperate need of an upgrade. At one point I thought, “What happens when there’s a fire?” Surely these invaluable files must have electronic backups because it would be a shame to lose them forever. It must be seen to be believed.
“Obit” is a documentary for people like me—those who are interested in not only how things work but also the people involved in a specific line of work (what they find rewarding about it, the stresses that come with the job, how they relay information to others who may or may not be interested in the process of writing about the dead). The work is detailed but moves at a constant forward momentum, seemingly insular at first glance but quite fascinating when you open yourself up the humanistic elements of the job being explored. It educates and entertains.