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OBIT Life on the Dead Beat of The New York Times-NYC

Director Vanessa Gould, who previously helmed the documentary Between the Foldsjust released a new trailer for a forthcoming work called OBIT: Life on the Dead Beat of The New York Times, a documentary about the obituaries and obituary writers at The New York Times. “One day the edition of the newspaper will come out, and with any luck there will be something about me in it, but I won’t be reading it,” says author Christopher Hitchens who opens the trailer.

So far, it seems that the documentary will manage to straddle both haunting and uplifting–no small feat.”There’s never any time when people don’t die. It’s a tally of who among us has left the previous night,” says obit editor William McDonald. The glimpse into the lives of those at the obit desk reveal some of the singular challenges they face:  “Sometimes you have as few as 300 words to get across the essence of somebody’s life. You don’t know who you’re going to be writing about from day to day,” writer William Grimes explains.

One of the most fascinating aspects revealed is the “morgue” of The New York Times, a filing facility of past and advance obituaries, the latter which are kept under lock and key. Located in dusty basement of the nearby Herald Tribune building, it also serves as a resource for the entire paper. Every item is alphabetized, with photographs of the notable, some which haven’t been seen in the public for 80 to 90 years. As Gould tells Untapped,

The morgue [is] really fit for an entire documentary itself.  An enormous analog 100-year archive–wholly unique–fighting for itself own existence in a digital world deep in the basement of high-rent Manhattan real estate, is a worthy plot.  It’s tended in the best of hands by highly capable archivist Jeff Roth, who does the work of–what formerly–dozens of people did.  There are things in the The New York Times morgue that most likely, at this point, do not exist anywhere else in the world.  Naturally, the New York Times obit staff rely on the morgue and Jeff Roth as part of their research in writing journalism’s best obituaries.

Already in the trailer, we can see moments of real depth and revelation–from these writers who see from a very particular perspective the passage of time and the evolution of our presence in this world. “When you are writing people who are dying now, you begin to recognize how quickly things change,” says writer Bruce Weber. What will we remember, the documentary poses to the viewer, and what never dies?

OBIT is still in production, partnered with the Independent Filmmaker Project and Made in NY, but they’re still seeking support for the post-production phase. You can check out how to support the project here.

Read more from our Film Locations column on Untapped Cities. Get in touch with the author @untappedmich.

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