It is hard to make a good documentary about writing. Writing is internal, it slowly takes shape in a mind, sometimes after the not very cinematic process of staring at a wall until the words come. It's easier to dramatize it in fiction – think of the moody, dreamlike film The Hours about Virginia Woolf as she wrote Mrs. Dalloway, or Emma Thompson as a perturbed novelist with writer's block in Stranger Than Fiction, trying to figure out the perfect way to kill her main character. With documentary, bound as it is to the facts, it's trickier to translate the interior life of a writer to the screen and still entertain.
Director Vanessa Gould's Obit, a documentary about The New York Times obituary desk and its writers, is all about the process of writing. The fact-finding, the contextualizing, the impending deadline and the eventual dread of needing to print a correction. In lesser hands, this might be a musty film about musty writers drinking too much coffee like sentient Cathy comics, quibbling over ledes and word count with their editor. But here, Gould casts into relief the significant, historically rich storytelling that is done every day in the back pages of the Times by print media's best journalists.
Gould came to the project by grim happenstance. Her first film, Between the Folds, featured an intricate portrait of Éric Joisel, an origami artist who, "on the eve of achieving some sort of artistic renown," then died of lung cancer. On the heels of this death, Gould "felt a sense of panic that his legacy would evaporate like smoke in the days after his death and we would forget about him and the work he had done." She sent out a death announcement and Margalit Fox of the Times obituary desk was the only one who answered the call.
The film's emphasis, like the obits themselves, is not on death but on life. Fox – the department's most animated member – insists "obits have almost next to nothing to do with death and absolutely everything to do with life." Later, William Grimes chimes in to say the aim of a good obit is to "enchant the reader," as it offers "a once-only chance to make the dead live again." It's easy to bristle at this ethos. Why couldn't an obituary – of all things! – be about death? If not there, then where? In a death-denying culture that actively avoids reckoning with mortality, we should let the fact of death at least have a little room in newsprint without painting over it in the rosier shades of celebration and life.
Asked what this life-affirming impulse was all about, and what she thought of the somewhat crass way that a person's life gets measured in the end by newsworthiness, word count and placement above or below the fold, Gould holds steady. "At the start, I also had trouble trying to get my head around those crasser elements, but they probably wouldn't even use that word to describe it," the director says in an interview. Just as war reporters or journalists who report on crime do, obit writers must distance themselves from the emotion of the story – it's their job. "That's what's so interesting about them, they can dissociate and do their job professionally but still bring this overarching care and concern to every single obituary they write," she says. "They give the people they write about a dignity, and that comes from their heart – they can just dissociate from the emotional event."
A Times reporter will move around from department to department every five, seven or 10 years, so there is no "type" of journalist who sets out to become an obit writer. Gould explains that "all of the writers in the film have had very storied careers in other parts of the paper. Whether they were writing about theatre, culture, food, education. The editor of the desk will say that's to the obituary desk's great benefit, because they are seasoned generalists and they can pick up a story and figure it out pretty quickly. And that helps when you're writing about a ballet dancer one day and a physicist the next, and a European politician the day after."
Fox, Grimes, Bruce Weber, William McDonald, Jack Kadden, Douglas Martin and Paul Vitello – all featured in Obit as they inch closer to their publishing deadline and in one-on-one interviews – are in the business of the nuts and bolts of a life, and of getting its facts right. This isn't crassness, it is a tender kind of curiosity. The meticulous work they do is what opens up the space of grief for others. It is their dispassionate reporting that makes it possible for a reader to see the subject's life briefly illuminated in the context of a much broader history. The significance of this journalistic principle is also why a correction is so painful to them – the facts really matter. Their fastidious research is what allows for the grief-stricken or simply the curious to catch of glimpse of what was once flesh and breath.
That's the pressure that weighs on the writers the most. It's not the messiness of grief – they are distanced from that, but it's the high stakes of writing someone into history, of regaling readers with their newsworthiness in the wake of their death.
"While in a literal way the death bears very little reporting, existentially, the writers are inevitably always cognizant of why they're writing the piece in the first place," Gould explains. "There's a lot of psychology at work. In the same way that a therapist doesn't present very emotionally in a conversation with a patient, they have found a way to talk to family members in a present but dispassionate way that draws out a lot from the person they are speaking to."
Obit opens March 31 at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto (tiff.net).