Movie Review: Obit

Hot Docs - Obit - Bruce Weber and Vanessa Gould

Director & Producer Vanessa Gould and Reporter Bruce Weber

What do you consider a newsworthy death?

Well, the New York Times’ obituaries section is not limited to celebrities and politicians, as there are many ordinary people doing extraordinary things and their stories deserve to be told in print and online. By flipping to the obits section, you can access history from the perspective of a skilful reporter who wrote a retrospective about a person who led a meaningful life. That’s something worth reading.

After job shadowing a movie critic at The Globe and Mail during high school, I was intrigued by the movie Obit, as it promises to offer a behind the scenes look at The New York Times. Thankfully, Vanessa Gould’s movie is insightful and engaging and you don’t need to be a journalist to enjoy this documentary at Hot Docs. After all, the obits are written for everyone. One of the reporters communicated this effectively when he said that their challenge is to craft an entertaining piece about history for people who don’t know history.

OBIT documentary 2

Archivist Jeff Roth organizes files on thousands of people, including the 1700+ people for whom the obits team has written articles in advance.

I was curious about how the staff of a world-renowned publication would try to differentiate their work from other material about death. One reporter said they avoid using Hallmark language by eliminating any euphemisms from their writing. For instance, you won’t read a sentence that says, “John Doe passed away while surrounded by friends and family.”

Rather, they cut to the chase in every article by stating the person’s name, age and cause of death and perhaps most importantly, who confirmed their death. This is key because apparently a former reporter at the paper mistakenly wrote an obit for a European performer who was actually healthy and living in a Manhattan nursing home!

OBIT documentary

The obits are to my grandparents what Humans of New York is to me—they’re all stories about interesting people. I think it’s important to celebrate individuals in real-time; we don’t need to wait until someone’s dead to talk about their achievements.

Obit is a unique movie that will appeal to fans of Spotlight. Journalism is a rewarding job and viewers will be pleased to know that the reporters interviewed don’t think their job is depressing, even though it does make them think about their own mortality. One of them poignantly says at the end, “There’s nothing you can do about dying by the way — just thought I’d point that out.”

There’s still time to watch Obit at Hot Docs! Tickets are available here.

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