Monday, April 25, 2016

Tribeca ’16: Obit

Clearly, this is an important documentary, because people were dying to be in it. That joke was promised on Twitter, so there it is. In all seriousness, obituary writing is a skill you have to admire, because you never know when the bell will toll for someone important. True, publications will have pre-written obituaries on file for people of a certain stature who have reached a certain age, but who would have thought to do that for Prince? Even more challenging and often more rewarding are the recently deceased who were not household names but still made a lasting mark on the world. Vanessa Gould observes the New York Times obituary staff at work and samples some of their pieces in Obit, which screened as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Loyal readers (who are probably dying off fast) all want their loved ones memorialized with a NYT obit, but very few make the cut. However, occasionally a call from family members pans out, like the late Jack Kinzler, who really did save Skylab. In a sense, these obituaries rescue the accomplished departed from obscurity, serving as time-capsule histories of their time and field of expertise.

Gould and the staff writers get into process, but not to tedious extent. Having been burned in the past, obituary writers have to get on-the-record confirmation for each passing and whenever possible the cause of death. The latter can be a little sticky at times, but readers will wonder if it is not there. When they are lucky, there are photos and perhaps even an advance obit in the so-called “morgue,” presided over by archivist Jeff Roth. Probably his greatest archival discovery was the advance for 1920s daredevil pilot Elinor Smith, who lived to the ripe old age of 98, even though editors doubted her luck would hold out during the height of her fame.

Gould and her subjects convincingly argue obituary writing is a life-affirming practice, which is cool. However, it would have given the film greater scope if she had incorporated obituary writers from different, perhaps more specialized publications. Believe it or not, The New York Times is not the only periodical publishing obits. Still, it is fascinating to listen to the many thumbnails of the obituary department’s greatest hits, like the tragically sweeping life of Anna Peters, a.k.a. Svetlana Alliluyeva [Stalin].

You have to wonder if the sudden deaths of popular figures like Prince, Chyna, and Papa Wemba are good or bad for a doc like Obit. Of course they can never schedule screenings around death, because it is always with us. Somehow Gould maintains both a sensitive tone and a breezy pace throughout the film. Recommended as a tip-of-the-hat to an under-sung field of journalism, Obit premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, with screenings to follow on 5/2, 5/3, 5/7, and 5/8 at this year’s Hot Docs in Toronto.