Obituaries, those small sections in newspapers gives us a glimpse into a person’s life after they have lived it, a behind the scenes look at their achievements, their relationships, the things and people they loved, and, ultimately, their death. When we read obits we, of course, reflect on the deceased. If we knew them we scrutinize the page to make certain the information is correct, if we did not know them, we sit back and try to extrapolate what kind of person they may have been from the paragraphs in front of us. We don’t usually wonder what the writer behind the piece is like, or what he or she went through to bring us that slice of a person’s life.
Obit does exactly that, it us takes on a journey unlike any other movie has before it. We follow a team of New York Times Obit writers as they struggle to write obituaries in time for the world famous paper’s tight deadlines. These men and women show us an almost painstaking process, a battle not just against time, but also a struggle with themselves. In this documentary we see the writers say on numerous occasions that they need to both get the facts right and transfer the deceased’s personality to the reader, not just what they did, but who they were.
We explore the hustle and bustle of the New York Times building, we get to sit in on meetings as they discuss the schedule and process, and, most importantly of all, we get to shadow each obit writer as they pen their own piece. Both aspiring and currently employed writers can find plenty of guidance and inspiration here. For instance, we see one Obit writer discuss a conversion he had with a colleague, explaining some advice he departed onto his peer. He explained that his contemporary should not use too many facts, if you get bogged down in facts it can make the piece boring, and you are more likely to make mistakes. However, later in the feature the gentlemen fell into the same trap, despite his very own advice. He wrote about a deceased’s grandparent, making an error about that person’s political leanings. “If only I did not put in so many facts,” he said.
As a writer this made me consider my own work, compare it to his, and think about that struggle. He did not need to write about the grandfather or grandmother, let alone insert political information, but it’s that skirmish in one’s mind that can be applied to every piece of work. When bringing news to a reader, one attempts to paint the whole picture with the sharpest and most fluid of colors. Leaving out some facts can often feel as though you are painting with fewer colors, depriving your readership of the facts, when, in reality, one is actually painting a more beautiful portrait of the deceased without shoving too much unnecessary knowledge into the reader’s face.
Not only is Obit informative on the writing side of things, it can also be educational in other ways. Some readers may not be aware that some obituaries are written in advance for the famous, so if an icon or public figure suddenly passes away newspapers can quickly get the piece to the public. In my opinion, it must be pretty strange to have your own death written about you years in advance.
This documentary does a wonderful job of showing us the ins and out of this life, from talking with family members and doing research, to the writers staring at blank screens, feeling pressure under a tight deadline—this truly is a day in the life.
One of my favorite sections in this film came with a wonderful quote, and an even greater outlook on the position of writing obituaries. A writer commented that a great many people believe her career is depressing, writing about death all of the time. However, she stated that she did not see it this way. She believes that she is not writing about death, she is writing about life. I agree with this statement. An obituary could very well be the last piece of information the general public will receive about the deceased, therefore taking an entire life and putting it into a few hundred words is a very important job. It’s a last statement, that person’s final testament left behind, and a piece of history.
Photos courtesy of: Tribeca Film Festival