In conversation with Obit documentary director Vanessa Gould

In conversation with Obit documentary director Vanessa Gould

Obituaries: The art of capturing a life in words

Director Vanessa Gould’s spirited documentary, Obit, which recently premiered at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, illuminates the world of those who write obituaries for The New York Times.

The documentary includes a survey of the history and craft of writing obituaries. It also emphasizes the celebration of life rather than concentrating on death.

The Ontarion had the opportunity to speak with Gould, who shared the inspiration and creative process behind the film. In Gould’s view, obituaries have the power to help the departed live again.

What inspired you to make this film? Why obituaries?

Vanessa Gould: About six or seven years ago, one of the featured subjects [Eric Joisel] in my last documentary [Between the Folds] passed away. He was a reclusive artist who had been mostly unknown his entire career and, just as he was on the way of maybe getting some recognition for his work, he got sick.

There really wasn’t anything in the public arena that would naturally act as a document of his legacy. It felt [that], after he died, [his legacy] was going to be forgotten almost instantaneously.

It was a really unusual feeling of how quickly the sense of somebody’s disappearance was.

So, the first thing I did was contact about two dozen newspapers to announce his death and say, “Contact me if you’re interested in learning more.”

Nobody wrote back for two or three days, and then the only person that ended up writing back was Margalit Fox—who you meet in the film. She wrote a remarkably attentive and interpretive understanding of his work. She contextualized what he had done and let the reader understand why, in a sense, he was obituary-worthy in the first place. I was riveted by the process as well as the way obits function.  

What really stood out to me was the fact that the New York Times writers in your film talk about their work not being about death at all, but instead about celebrating life. Was this your original understanding or did talking to them change your overall view?

VG: It was my original hunch because when I was interested in Margalit Fox writing this obituary for my friend, our whole process was focused on his life, his accomplishments, and the crazy things he did. […]

My first-hand experience was really thinking about him as a living person.

And so, the whole time that my subconscious was competing with the film in the first place, it was an experience that was one exclusively about the details of somebody’s life. That’s what captured me, but also informed the way we ended up framing the project.

Before making your film, were there any obituaries that especially stood out to you, perhaps adding to your means of inspiration?

VG: No—in fact, I had never really read obituaries before this happened. I knew nothing about them and the fact that I wrote to the Times about [Joisel] was the most basic, uninformed reaction of somebody dying. There was no deeper understanding of the process or anything like that.

How was the task of putting together a cinematic representation of writers and their process?   

VG: That was extremely challenging, but also one of the most fun parts about thinking about the film. To take something like an obituary—which functions extremely well in the print medium—and to transpose that into a film, you have to make sure that you’re doing something that’s additive and you’re enhancing it in some way. Because they just stood at their desks all day, it was inherently non-cinematic.

But, the lives that they are talking about and the sort of the imagination that you can bring to the history element was seductive.

If you’re going to take the [written] form and put it into video, let’s bring a video treatment to the past and allow the viewers to dig into the past through old archival footage—it was a real archival project in that sense. We really loved the idea of sort of re-vitalizing or re-incarnating these people in a way that almost brings them back from the dead.   

In the digital world—Facebook in particular—it seems like everyone is writing their own obituaries for people they know. Do you think this will take work away from places like the New York Times? Do you see Facebook as a new form of obituary?

VG: I haven’t done a lot of thinking about the broader form of obituary stories and the way in which social media has started dealing with death. Although it’s obviously extremely significant, it just didn’t fit into our premise. My general feeling is that whatever people feel inclined to do is totally valid and wonderful. The younger generation uses social media in a way that the older generation doesn’t, but whatever people can find that helps them express and form communities around their admiration for people I would say is a wonderful thing. Somebody once said that obituaries are “Humans of New York from my grandparents.” It’s kind of the same thing—it’s another way of getting a glimpse into people’s lives in an unfiltered way.

What do you ultimately want your viewers to think about or reflect on after watching Obit?

VG: As a filmmaker, I’m always most comfortable not imposing an expectation on the viewers. I love the idea of putting something out there and letting people take it for what it is to them. But, at the same time, I hope viewers come away with a sense of the utter richness and fascination with the things that people do.

The volume of history is so great and every time you peek into a little window of history, you find so much that you never knew was there.

That’s what the obits did for me and I don’t ever feel comfortable saying that I want people to think about their own mortality. Some people might come to it simply as a story, for the love of these old stories, so I think that the vastness of history was what I was after.  

Courtesy Obit