Obit: Q&A with Director Vanessa Gould
By Annette Graham, DC Film Society Member
Obit (Vanessa Gould, 2016) is a documentary about obituary writers at the New York Times. The film was shown at AFI Docs in June 2016, Filmfest DC in April 2017 and is scheduled to open May 12 at Landmark's E Street Cinema. This Q&A with director Vanessa Gould and cinematographer Ben Wolf took place June 23, 2016 at AFI Docs.
Moderator: How did you come to this story?
Vanessa Gould: In my last film, which I finished about five years ago, one of the artists was living in the northern suburbs of Paris and he was at the height of his creative career. He got lung cancer and when he died at the age of 53 or 54, I had a knee jerk reaction of what can we do to preserve his legacy. He was reclusive person; he had no financial resources; there was nothing in place to remember him. The first thing I thought of was to contact the press and let them know of his death. I wrote to about two dozen newspapers and informed them of what happened and showed a bit his work. I waited for days and days with bated breath and no one contacted me. I figured that would be the case. Then I got a call from the New York Times. It was Margalit Fox who called. They ended up running a long obituary on this utterly unknown French artist. And they put photos of his work on their website and photos of him. I was flabbergasted for so many different reasons and started to think about what the Times was trying to do editorially with the obits page. Slowly I understood that it wasn't just about movers and shakers but, in a deeper sense, unique people that might help us understand the human condition better and who might have done something that was singular and something no one else had ever done. From a cultural anthropological standpoint I started thinking as a documentarian--like how interesting that there's a section of the New York Times, which is obviously a 21st century modern daily newspaper, would commit such precious real estate to lives of unknown people that they think are enriching to learn about. I contacted them and begged. (audience laughs)
Moderator: Was it really a begging process?
Vanessa Gould: I didn't beg. It was a very formal procedure but it was almost two years between the first request to do it and the day we brought cameras into the building. There were many many layers of approvals and concerns and confidentiality issues. Getting everything in place to do the film the way it needed to be done vs. just going in there on a lark to see what we could get, was a lot of work.
Moderator: You have the subjects addressing the camera directly. These writers are so comfortable with this. How does that process work and how is that choice made?
Vanessa Gould: That's a great question for Ben. As a cinematographer he can talk about the psychology of direct address.
Ben Wolf: I think that might have been my idea. We used a gizmo that Errol Morris is known for. It's a kind of box with mirrors so that the writers are actually talking to Vanessa but through some mirrors, so while they feel they are talking to Vanessa they are talking also to the camera. We agreed it would be a nice approach to take here. It gives a very personal connection between the subjects and the audience rather than looking off to the side, away from the audience.
Audience Question: I've been obsessed with the idea of advanced obits. Who writes them and how do they have time?
Vanessa Gould: I think anyone who's writing advanced obits would tell you it's a really difficult thing to fit into their schedule. As the film addresses, writers live and breathe by the daily byline. To be pulled away from that, to write an article that you don't when it will run, you don't even know if you'll be alive when it runs, is something that the editors have to consider. The request is not always warmly received. The Times has a lot of writers who took the buy-out and are more mature, more seasoned writers who have slowed down on the beat. So they actually love writing the advances. It gives them a chance to read the oeuvre of an author for example. They would read seven or ten of the person's books over the summer. They can give it some real thought rather than having to write under the ticking clock of deadline. Some journalists, Robert McFadden, exclusvely write advances at this point. It's the only thing he wants to do. For a working young journalist who really is trying to get their name out there, it's difficult to pull someone off their beat for five days to write something that's speculative in nature. It's a strange thing too because sometimes obit writers do not ever see the advances they wrote. The late great theater critic Mel Gussow wrote a ton of advance obits for the New York Times in the 1980s and 90s and when he passed away they still had a big drawer of his obits. So to this day, you'll see obituaries written by Mel Gussow, which is essentially an article about a dead person written by a dead person, in the paper. (audience laughs) It's pretty unbelievable.
Audience Comment: I've been reading New York Times obits for 35 years. I really like it when they bring to life at the moment of someone's death, someone I've never heard of who lived a fascinating life. In today's paper, David Thatcher, next to last surviver of the raids on Tokyo in 1942. It confirms the factual accuracy of the film I saw here three days ago, Thirty Seconds Over Toyko. You never know what you're going to get. Everybody should be reading it.
Audience Question: How did you choose the story of Wilson to be in the film and how many other stories did you shoot? How did that obit became the guiding light for the whole film?
Vanessa Gould: I love the [William P.] Wilson story and I'm so pleased about it. But I have to tell you, just like any obit writer, we arrived in the newsroom on any given day and that's what there was. On the way into the shoot that day, I have to admit hoping (laughs) that something newsworthy would happen. I hadn't heard of that guy. Bruce got the assignment; I was on my phone looking him up. He's an aide to Kennedy, never heard of him. I felt that this is going to be a challenge. It ended up being extraordinary, the ties to the media world, to politics and obviously to Kennedy. The idea of seeing a huge national event that everyone experienced through the lens of an unknown person, a back-player, really worked out well. I feel mostly just fortunate in the way it... It's hard to talk about it in this way. I'm very happy with the way it panned out. We didn't shoot another thread. It's the only one we shot.
Audience Question: How did the typewriter story come about?
Vanessa Gould: That was a stroke of edit-room genius. When Margalit was doing her interview, she was keen about showing off her typewriter. There are themes of cycles, generations passing, old sounds of the newsroom. She was excited to show off the typewriter she still allegedly uses, I'm not sure for what purpose. So we filmed that and pored through hundreds of hours of archival footage. We loved the idea of music being a conduit through which to consider the sounds of the time. So we started thinking about Liberace obviously, and the typewriter song that everyone knows from WQXR. Our editor, the extremely talented Kristen Bye, found a way to put those together.
Audience Question: How in the course of working with the subject matter, did it change you and how? And what impact were you hoping it would have on the people who saw it?
Vanessa Gould: When I do any creative project, it's hard to know how it changes you. You get so involved and immersed in it. With this material, at the end of the day, you spend a lot of time thinking about life cycles and the things that compel people to do the things they do. The enrichment quotient is really high. I feel grateful to have had the privilege to have spent a couple of years to think about the things that have happened over the course of the 20th century that have somehow moved this needle or that needle. When you look back at history almost as if it's a point of a stick, you feel you have a privileged look into so many of the little dots of what the fabric of our current society is and how it got there. It's not so much that it changed me as much as acutely affects your appreciation. And in terms of what I wanted the impact to be--I take a pretty traditional artistic position on documentaries. People reflect on their life and that's terrific. But I really believe that at the end of the day if something can just make people a little different when they come out of the theater than they went it, whether it's because they learned something or felt something, or saw something in a new way, that's to me the greatest power of art. And for a film like this that is so full of different stories and perspectives that are not often seen, I felt like it had a good potential to do that.
Audience Question: I saw David Bowie and expected to see Prince also. When did you finish editing?
Vanessa Gould: We finished editing the first or second week of April. We actually left a few blanks. We almost fine cut it by the end of 2015. So we left a slot in there expecting that somebody would fill it and sadly it was David Bowie. We will probably put Prince and Mohammed Ali in.
Audience Question: You could make a documentary just about the morgue manager. Is the Times looking for a grant to do some kind of indexing?
Vanessa Gould: I hope some preservationists emerge from the woodwork. I don't know what the Times has planned. I never talked to the administration about the morgue and the state it is in and what their plans are for it. If the world can see the morgue a little more through this film, it could use a little love. It takes up real estate in mid-town Manhattan and is sort of the stepchild of the organization. No one wants to babysit it or deal with it. But everybody ultimately knows it's important. So I don't know what's going to happen with it. But now it's in terrific care of Jeff Roth.
Obit is scheduled to arrive May 12 at Landmark's E Street Cinema.
The 27th Washington Jewish Film Festival
From the press release
Washington’s largest Jewish cultural event features the best in independent and international cinema. The Festival, which runs from May 17-28 in venues throughout the Washington area, includes 63 feature-length and 18 short films from 25 countries, and showcases the diversity of Jewish life across the world. In addition to the film program, the Festival will host talkbacks and panel discussions with dozens of filmmakers from the U.S. and abroad. Opening Night will feature The Women's Balcony, a dramatic comedy set against a gender rift in an Orthodox community in Jerusalem. The Closing Night film is Fanny's Journey, the extraordinary true story of a young girl who leads a group of children through Europe to escape the Nazis.
“Every year we strive to present new cinematic voices from all corners of the globe that reflect and inform the Jewish identity,” said Ilya Tovbis, Director of the Washington Jewish Film Festival. “The 2017 program includes some of the most striking international films of the past year, from both emerging and master filmmakers. In many cases, the Festival will be the only chance for Washingtonians to catch these cinematic gems on screen.”
The feature, documentary and short films in the slate touch on an array of Jewish perspectives from around the world. This year’s festival includes three thematic strands: Rated LGBTQ which explores sexuality and gender identity; Mechanisms of Extremism, films that examine extremist governments, societies and movements; and Laugh Track, a selection of comedies of all stripes.
In addition to the main film program, the festival features a series of discussions and screenings to celebrate artists behind the camera, on stage and, even, in the kitchen. Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland will be honored with the WJFF Visionary Award. She will be present for a Q&A, the award ceremony and a screening of her Oscar-nominated film Angry Harvest. “As If, A Clueless Night!” is bringing back the ‘90s with a party and screening of Clueless followed by a conversation with filmmaker Amy Heckerling. The 7th Annual Community Day of Education on Arab Citizens of Israel pairs a screening of 77 Steps with a panel discussion on the daily lives and challenges of Arab citizens of Israel. “An Evening of Yiddish Culture” explores the enduring artistic legacy of Yiddish film and music. The ever-popular “Two Jews Walk into a Bar (and a Deli)” is a one-of-a-kind cinematic bar crawl.
Films and programs will take place at AFI Silver Theatre, Bethesda Row Cinema, E Street Cinema, the National Gallery of Art, and the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater at the Edlavitch DCJCC. See the website for titles and tickets. A festival pass is available.
Calendar of Events
American Film Institute Silver Theater
Special engagements in May include an extended director's cut of The Exorcist and a tribute to Richard Adams and John Hurt in the animated Watership Down (1978) an adaptation of the novel by Richard Adams and voiced by John Hurt, among others.
A book event includes two films Twentieth Century and The Lady Eve, both introduced by Emily Carman, author of "Independent Stardom: Freelance Women in the Hollywood Studio System."
The "Recent Restorations" series (April 28-July 6) includes The French Connection, the director's cut of Donnie Darko (directors cut), Jamaica Inn, Kamikaze 89, Titicut Follies, The Lion in Winter, Private Property, Solaris with more in June and July. Some restorations are 4K.
"Directed by David Lynch" (May 12-July) includes Eraserhead, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me in May, more in June.
"Encores" (April 29-July 3) brings back some popular films including Neruda, Daughters of the Dust, The Salesman, Toni Erdmann with more in June.
"Reinventing Realism--New Cinema from Romania" (May 13-June 14) is a series of films from Romania with screenings at the AFI and National Gallery of Art. At the AFI in May are Dogs with actor Toma Cuzin present for Q&A, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days with actress Anamaria Marinca in person for Q&A, Child's Pose and Aferimi with actor Gheorghe Visu present for Q&A. See below for films at the National Gallery of Art.
"2017 DC Labor FilmFest" (May 1-31) focuses on films about work, workers, and the issues affecting workers' lives. Titles are In Dubious Battle, Sacco and Vanzetti a 90th anniversary showing of Metropolis with musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra, No God No Master, Deepwater Horizon, Native Land, Hidden Figures, Matewan with filmmaker John Sayles in person for Q&A, and The Measure of a Man from France.
"By Popular Demand" (April 30-June 29) includes Mustang, Get Out, I Am Not Your Negro with one more in June.
"Stage and Screen" presents stage performances from the National Theater. During May you can see "The Deep Blue Sea," "No Man's Land," "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," and "Obsession."
The AFI is one of the venues for the Washington Jewish Film Festival, See above.
Freer Gallery of Art
The Freer is closed for renovations until October 2017. Films will be shown at varying locations.
"Utamaro's World on Film" is a series of films accompanying the exhibition. Titles are Utamaro and His Five Women (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1946) on May 14 at 2:00pm; Killing in Yoshiwara (Tomu Uchida, 1960) on May 20 at 2:00pm; and Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1939). All are shown at the Warner Brothers Theater in the National Museum of American History.
National Gallery of Art
"Reinventing Realism: New Cinema from Romania" (May 13-June 3) includes Graduation (Cristian Mungiu, 2016) on May 13 at 3:00pm; Sieranevada (Cristi Puiu, 2016) on May 14 at 2:00pm; The Treasure (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2015) on May 20 at 2:00pm; Illegitimate (Adrian Sitaru, 2016) on May 20 at 4:00pm; Back Home (Andrei Cohn, 2015) on May 27 at 2:00pm; The Miracle of Tekir (Ruxandra Zenide, 2016) on May 27 at 4:00pm; Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu, 2012) on May 28 at 4:30pm; with one more in June. Also see the AFI for more Romanian films in this series.
Special events at the Gallery in May include a "Cine-concert: Contemporary Experiments in Animation" on May 6 at 2:00pm, a collection of short animation with piano accompaniment by Andrew Simpson; Angel Wagenstein--Art Is a Weapon (Andrea Simon, 2017) on May 20 at 12:00 noon, Sunset Song (Terence Davies, 2015) on May 28 at 2:00pm, Return to DakTo (2015) with filmmaker Christopher Upham in person on May 29 at 2:00pm; and Parables of War (2014) with filmmaker Nina Gilden Seavey in person, preceded by the animated Monument (Marcin Gizycki, 2016) on May 29 at 4:00pm.
Museum of American History
See the Freer, above for three Japanese films.
National Museum of African American History and Culture
On May 5 at 8:00pm is "Cinema+Conversation: Wattstax," about the 1965 uprising in Watts, Los Angeles. Discussion follows the screening.
On May 13 at 7:00pm is "Constructing Black Messiahs: A Panel and Screening of The Second Coming." Actor and filmmaker Blair Underwood and other panelists will be present for discussion.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
On May 13 at 3:00pm is Hockney (Randall Wright, 2014), a documentary about the artist David Hockney.
On May 20 at 3:00pm are two historical films about JFK: Adventures on a New Frontier (Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles, 1961) and Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (Robert Drew, 1963).
National Museum of Women in the Arts
On May 10 at 6:30pm is 50/50 (Tiffany Shlain), about women trailblazers. A discussion follows.
Washington Jewish Community Center
The 27th Annual Washington DC Jewish Film Festival takes place May 17-28. See above.
On May 19 at 6:30pm is Grave Decisions (Marcus Hausham Rosenmuller, 2006), a prankster tale set in Bavaria.
National Air and Space Museum
"Hollywood Goes to War: World War I on the Big Screen" is a series of WWI films commemorating the entry to the US in 1917. Films are shown in both locations and the series ends in November. On May 26 at 7:00pm is All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, 1930).
On May 18 at 8:00pm is "movie and music with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra E.T. The Extraterrestrial in concert. Jack Everly conducts John Williams' Academy Award-winning score live as the classic film is projected on a giant HD screen.
On May 9 at 7:00pm is Merry Christmas (Christian Carion, 2005), and on May 23 at 7:00pm is the animated film Adama (Simon Rouby, 2015), both part of the series of WWI films on the centennial of the US entry into the war.
The Japan Information and Culture Center
On May 3 at 6:30pm is Miss Hokusai (Keiichi Hara, 2005) about an artist's daughter and on May 10 at 6:30pm is Double Suicide (Masahiro Shinoda, 1969).
The Textile Museum at GWU
On May 18 at noon is True Cost (Andrew Morgan, 2015), a documentary about clothing--the people who make them, the environmental cost and the impact of the fashion industry on our world.
On May 25 at noon is Versailles '73: American Runway Revoluntion (Deborah Riley Draper, 2013), a documentary about a 1973 runway rumble between American fashion designers and the lions of French haute couture.
For the John F. Kennedy centennial: On May 24 at noon is "American Experience: JFK, Part I" (2013), archival film, photographs and contemporary interviews. Part I covers JFK's childhood, WWII years and his rise in the political ranks. On May 31 at noon is Part II, a chronicle of the White House years, spread of communism, Cold War, Civil Rights.
"Cinema Arts Bethesda" is a monthly Sunday morning film discussion series. On May 21 at 10:00am is Midnight Orchestra (Jerome Cohen Olivar, 2015) from Morocco. Breakfast is at 9:30am, the film is at 10:00am and discussion follows, moderated by Adam Spector, host of the DC Film Society's Cinema Lounge and author of the column "Adam's Rib."
This month's "French Cinematheque" is The Country Doctor aka Irreplaceable (Thomas Lilti, 2016), starring Francois Cluzet, on May 17 at 8:00pm.
Italian Cultural Institute
On May 3 at 6:00pm is Me Ne Frego (Vanni Gandolfo, 2014), a documentary about how the Fascist regime attempted to "reform" the Italian language.
Library of Congress
The Mary Pickford Theater at the Library of Congress starts a new series of films showcasing the Library's collection and including newly preserved films. On May 18 at 7:00pm is the political thriller The Commissioner (George Sluizer, 1998) starring John Hurt and Armin Mueller-Stahl and based on a novel by Stanley Johnson.
"Bibliodiscotheque" is a series of disco-themed events including films, lectures, and a symposium. Films titles remaining in May include ABBA: The Movie (Lasse Hallstrom, 1977) on May 3 at 7:00pm; and House Party (Reginald Hudlin, 1990) on May 5 at 7:00pm.
Anacostia Community Museum
On May 27 at 2:00pm is Angel of Nanjing (2016), a documentary about a famous bridge in China which is the most popular place on earth to commit suicide.
Sixth and I Synagogue
On May 3 at 7:00pm Oscar-nominated actress Gabourey Sidibe will discuss her memoir "This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare" with moderator Linda Holmes.
On May 6 at 4:00pm is Indivisible: Love Knows No Borders (Hilary Linder, 2015), a documentary about "dreamers," immigrants who came to the US as children. Filmmaker Hilary Linder, editor Laura Franco-Velasco and the three Dreamers portrayed in the film Antonio Alarcon, Evelyn Rivera Portillo and Renata Borges Teodoro will be present for discussion.
Reel Affirmations XTra
On May 12 at 7:00pm is First Girl I Loved (Kerem Sanga, 2016).
On May 20 a 12:00 noon is the "Reel Trans Film Series," presenting the award winning documentary Major! (Annalise Ophelian, 2015) about Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, a formerly incarcerated Black transgender elder and activist who has been fighting for the rights of trans women of color for over 40 years. (Location: Studio Theater).
Busboys and Poets
On May 9 at 6:00pm is the short documentary America: An Immigration Nation (Theo Rigby). A discussion follows the film at the 5th and K location. Part of the Focus In! Film Series.
The Jerusalem Fund
On May 31 at 6:00pm is Speed Sisters (Amber Fares, 2016), a documentary about a women's race car driving team in the Middle East. More films in the "Palestine Center Summer Film Series" in June.