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You’ve Read the Obits, Now See the Movie

You’ve Read the Obits, Now See the Movie

 
An image from the movie “Obit.” CreditGreen Fuse Films

It all started with origami.

In the autumn of 2010, an editor in the obituary department of The Times handed me what I thought would be a routine, though immensely interesting, assignment. I could scarcely have imagined at the time that the resulting news article — the life story of a reclusive, little-known French paper artist named Eric Joisel — would be the catalyst for “Obit,” a documentary film about my colleagues and me that generated a good deal of buzz at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Mr. Joisel, who died at 53, was a master artisan of origami, though the origami that sprang from his hands had nothing in common with the limp cranes and wobbly salt cellars you and I made as children. His work — sculptural, sometimes immense and rigorously engineered — was exhibited around the world, including at the Louvre. He made intricately costumed commedia dell’arte figures, each one looking as though it were alive; bands of musicians, their veined, careworn hands holding tiny instruments. He made elegant seahorses, graceful, leaping fish, and, from a vast single sheet of paper, a life-size rhinoceros. 

My source for our obituary (The Times requires us to confirm a subject’s death, typically in the second paragraph of a news obit) was a young Brooklyn filmmaker named Vanessa Gould. Ms. Gould had won a Peabody Award for her 2008 documentary, “Between the Folds,” a meditative chronicle of the work of several remarkable origami artists, Mr. Joisel among them.

After Mr. Joisel died, Ms. Gould, who in the course of filming had become his close friend, sent a news release announcing his death to a dozen English-language newspapers in Europe and the United States. The Times, she told me recently, was the only one that replied.

For us, Mr. Joisel was a natural: Though scarcely a household name, he stood at the pinnacle of an arcane, fascinating profession. In scouring the world for our obituary subjects, we often gravitate toward unsung heroes and heroines who have managed, however quietly, to put a wrinkle in the social fabric. In Mr. Joisel we found someone who had done literally that, through the thousands of knife-sharp creases that gave life to his remarkable art.

I called Ms. Gould and found her to be the ideal source to guide me through the details of Mr. Joisel’s solitary life and the intricacies of his solitary art. “Much of his life’s work was devoted to studying an expressiveness of human nature that you would never think could be elicited from a piece of paper,” she told me, a quotation so apt that we included it in the finished story.

But what I didn’t know at the time was that Ms. Gould was attending to my questions as intently as I was attending to her answers. Her concerns as a documentarian center on the life of the mind, the making of art and the painstaking process by which the two can be combined. As I later learned, her participation in Mr. Joisel’s obituary made her think for the first time about training her eye on those of us who make obituaries — perhaps the strangest calling in American journalism but also the very best — with its singular pleasures and perils.

And so “Obit” was born, with Ms. Gould securing the layers of permission from The Times — first from the obituaries editor, William McDonald, then from masthead-level editors and members of our corporate communications department — that would allow her and her crew to film in the newsroom as they followed the making of a news obituary over the course of a single day. Mr. McDonald and many of our writers, Bruce Weber, William Grimes, Douglas Martin, Paul Vitello and I, were also interviewed in our homes. Our polymathic morgue custodian, Jeff Roth, who presides over tens of thousands of drawers of old photographs and yellowed, crumbling clippings, all the stock-in-trade of the obituary writer’s work, was interviewed in situ.

As my colleagues and I learned after comparing notes recently, it transpired that each of us was concerned at the outset about whether our working lives were truly a fitting subject for a documentary – not because they are uninteresting, but because, as I told Jezebel.com recently, we feared that the inevitable result would be “a bunch of middle-aged people sitting in chairs, talking on the phone and typing.” Our work product, alas, entails no leaping fish and nary a rhinoceros to make the visuals sing.

But Ms. Gould was alert to this prospect from the start. The finished film, which runs about 90 minutes, intercuts the interviews with rich archival footage, often so obscure that it had to be unearthed tenderly from the basements throughout the country where it had languished for decades. The resulting images capture not only our subjects in their prime but also the steady, sometimes dubious progress of history and the slow accretion of memory — all topics of the utmost concern to obituary writers.

And thus we have become film stars, a far cry from the marginalized outcasts that our obit-writing forebears in newsrooms across America so often were. We have been to the film’s world premiere at Tribeca this month. We have done the red carpet. We have been photographed. We have tasted renown.

And now we wait. We wait for the phone to ring with the offers we know will pour in — for how, we ask ourselves, can Hollywood possibly resist a bevy of articulate, middle-aged, chair-sitting typists such as we?

We wait. We wait and wait.