Who would have ever guessed that a group of New York Times obituary writers could be the topic of a great documentary? Director Vanessa Gould certainly turned an interesting idea into a bittersweet but entertaining film (2016) about how this small staff of career journalists research and write about the lives of those who have died.
I liked the movie for many reasons. First, I grew up in the New York metropolitan area, so New York is my city. I felt right at home. The movie profiles an eclectic bunch of New Yorkers with a profession that none ever imagined having. These writers are a vanishing breed, and the movie truly captures the nature of their work and how seriously they approach their craft. You see them in phone interviews, struggling with deadlines, choosing words carefully, carefully constructing their leads, navigating “front page” meetings, and even sometimes bemoaning errors that made it into published copy. You get to peek into a large and distinctly old-school photo archive with a wonderfully eccentric overseer. Each staff person also is given plenty of on-screen time just to reflect upon the many aspects involved in writing about dead people.
The movie is also a great behind-the-scenes look at how this particular part of the paper gets produced. How do the staff choose who gets New York Times obituary coverage, or decide who deserves a 500-word versus a 10,000-word obituary? Who decides whether an obituary is on the front page, or only referenced there? How many and what size photos does a newsworthy subject merit? What happens when someone very famous, like Michael Jackson, dies unexpectedly at four in the afternoon, just hours before the paper must go to press?
All these questions are answered through a series of vignettes about a wide variety of obituaries that the staff has produced. These pieces chronicle the lives of some fairly famous figures, but they also show you how the paper and the staff choose and create obituaries for lesser known but historically significant figures. I really enjoyed seeing all of these “stories-within-the-story.”
You can watch this film for free through the Library’s streaming service, Kanopy.
I chose it from the “Staff Picks” section of the KANOPY site; it received a lot of critical acclaim when it was released, and garners high ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. There were several more movies in the “Staff Picks” section of the Canopy site that caught my attention. Kanopy has a lot to offer: old classics, indie films, foreign films, Oscar winners, and more. To register for your free account and start browsing titles, click here.
Review by Roberta Jordan, Assistant Director.