An Interview with Vanessa Gould, Director of OBIT

Vanessa Gould is the director of OBIT, a documentary about the obituary writers at the New York Times.  We had a chance to watch her riveting documentary ahead of its appearance at TIFF Bell Lightbox next week, and she answers some of our questions about obituaries and documentaries and about women in film and history.  But first, some information about the film:

It is literally a dying art. In-depth obituaries require investigation, sensitive interviewing and deft writing. They are a connection to history that defies the ephemerality of the digital world.  And no collection of “deskers” does past lives better than the New York Times obituary team. The acclaimed documentary OBIT from Peabody Award winner Vanessa Gould (Between the Folds) introduces viewers to veteran journalists whose daily job is to absorb the lives of people who died, make an editorial case for their impact and newsworthiness, and do them justice in print – all in the seven hours before deadline.

OBIT is showing at The TIFF Bell Lightbox, 350 King Street West, for a one-week engagement beginning March 31, 2017.

Find out more here.


Plenty: I have a confession.  Since I was a young kid I have always read the obituaries (and even the death notices) in the paper.  Now that they are online, I read them there almost daily.  When I saw the press release for your film, I immediately responded that I wanted to view it.  Perhaps a tad depressing or even macabre to some, but it’s compelling to me.  What inspired you to make this film?

Vanessa: That’s interesting you read them as a kid – that’s pretty rare I think!  I was not an obituary reader until the death of a friend, and that’s also what led me to make the film.  The short version of the story is that one of the subjects in my last film – a film about artists and scientists – died from lung cancer at 53, just as the world was starting to know who he was.  He was a solitary Frenchmen, and I had this immediate sense after he passed away that his life and work would be forgotten.  It was a profound and panicking feeling.  And so the first thing I did was send an announcement of his death to many English language newspapers around the world, with a photo or two of his work.  Days passed, and then the only paper that contacted me was The New York Times, the one I had thought was the most unlikely.  The process that unfolded after that just consumed me: the function of these journalistic accounts of life after death, and the way they can inform what we record and remember.

Plenty: Are there moments or lessons that will stay with you from the experience of making this film?

Vanessa: Too many to count. Truly. When you read the obits you soon learn that there’s a lesson or an impressionable element – however small – in the account of almost any life.

Obituary writer, Margalit Fox.

Plenty: As I was watching the film, I couldn’t help but think that this is such an important story to tell.  Obituaries really are a window to our past, and as one of the writers says, we are just beginning to see more and more women and minorities on the obit pages because the window of history is now sliding past an era dominated by white male newsmakers to the era of the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Movement.   Why did you think that this was an important story to tell?  At any point in the creation of the film did the reasons ever shift for you?

Vanessa: I’m fascinated by people and history.  And, for reasons I can’t explain, I’m often nagged by a fear that history is disappearing faster than we can record or remember it. The daily duty of an editorial obituary writer just captivated me. Obits remind us from where we came and how we got here – which may not always be pretty, in many cases it’s not. But the life stories of people who overcame enormous odds, or who exhibited bravery in the face of fierce obstacles, or who discovered and created things that no one dreamed possible – these are stories that can inspire, but that can also shine a light on the amazing qualities of human nature, and what people are capable of.

Plenty: I challenge anyone to watch this film and not develop a respect for the obit writer.  It’s a job where facts and creativity collide, much like, I am assuming, documentary film making.  After spending an extensive amount of time with these writers, what similarities have you found there to be between the fields?

Vanessa: The film’s editor, Kristin Bye, and I were constantly aware of the reflective nature between the way we were capturing the obit writers and their stories, and the way the obit writers capture the daily stories of their subjects. In many ways, it’s an outsider – a stranger – coming in cold, with keen interest, to identify and then communicate the essence of the subject matter.  The obit writer has 1000 words to achieve that; and the documentary team has 90 minutes to achieve it.  And you reach for the illustrative things, the details, the salient elements that can best give the reader or viewer a complete-as-possible picture.

Of course, there are differences as well.  They often do their work in a mindblowing 6-7 hours. We took 4.5 years!

Plenty: This month at Plenty we are discussing women as change makers.  Gender does come up in the film, and I am not sure if you did this purposely, but just as your subject addresses gender and obits, how do you speak to the challenges of being a female filmmaker in what is a very competitive, male-dominated industry?

Vanessa: There are so many challenges to independent filmmaking, and it can be hard to identify which are products of the industry’s gender disparity. Perhaps many of them are, in one way or another, institutionally. I work extremely hard and hope that the examples set by that, along with the work itself, can do something – however small – to knock down obstacles, and help show all the projects and ideas and beautiful ways of seeing coming from female filmmakers.

Plenty: How do you see yourself contributing to the greater conversations that society engages in?  Are you acutely aware of the message that you are sending female viewers?

Vanessa: The main themes of OBIT are not gender based or driven. But behind the scenes, much of the film’s core creative and producing team are women.  And it happens to be the strongest and most talented dream team we could have assembled for this project: the film’s editor Kristin Bye, its producer Caitlin Mae Burke, and nearly our entire team of executive producers and co-executive producers are women.  I don’t know how much that translates to viewers, but I do believe creating and sharing a women-made film with the world is one fundamental way of setting an example, tipping the scales, and contributing to the larger conversation.

Plenty: I have to ask, I couldn’t help but think of what I would want my own obit to say after watching this film.  What would Vanessa Gould’s obit say about her?

Vanessa: People don’t believe me, but I have really not given that almost any thought, and am not really able to get my head around it.  However, I doubt I’m the only one who would say that – it’s a very hard question.

“The morgue” at the New York Times.

One thought

  1. I hope to have a chance to see the documentary. I too have always enjoyed reading obituaries. When my grandmother died three years ago, I submitted an essay to the Lives Lived column in the Globe and Mail, and while that’s of course a very different genre–an obituary written by someone close to the person, and featuring someone who is not a public figure–and working with Globe editor was fascinating, and made me think what an interesting job it must (or might?) be, helping to shape the stories of all these extraordinary ordinary people.

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