NZ International Film Festival review: Obit

Obit premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival
Obit premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival

The New York Times' obituaries section is a longstanding feature you get the feeling is not to be trifled with.

But, like everything else about the 164-year-old publication, the desk must fight to stay relevant in these knife-edge days for the news media industry.

Obit introduces us to the people behind the bylines which give life to the subject of death.

For a news nerd like me, it's an interesting dissection of this curious tradition. The writers - some of whom are far more engaging than others - explain the process of pitching, researching and writing an obituary; it also delves into the historical and social importance of memorialising the lives of a chosen few.

The film starts strongly and has a number of particularly well-constructed scenes, which energise what would otherwise be very staid shots of people sitting at desks.

A tour of the newspaper's archives - aptly known as the morgue - with its zealous gatekeeper Jeff Roth, is both a highlight of the film and a mind-boggling illustration of the sheer volume of information which has appeared on the Times' pages.

Unfortunately, however, Obit gets weighed down by its pondering of death. The second half plods its way through anecdote after anecdote of people about whom obituaries were written, as well as increasingly verbose reflections on the morbidity of the job.

It is a shame that something which starts so thought-provokingly manages to lose its way.

And while the insight is fascinating by virtue of the rarity of access to the inner workings of the Grey Lady, the documentary never steps outside the bounds of the office to test its claims about the ongoing relevance of obituaries to readers, which makes it feel a bit self-important and inward-looking.

It's astounding to me that the Times can still justify staffing an entire department - which seems to number at least half a dozen writers - to produce pieces at the luxurious rate of one per day.

Sadly, the film didn't do much to convince me of the value either. I'm sad to say it pales in comparison to those other stellar documentaries made about the Times in recent years, Page One and Bill Cunningham New York.

Two-and-a-half stars.

This film is playing as part of the 2016 New Zealand International Film Festival.

     Obit:: Director: Vanessa Gould:: Rating: Exempt:: Running Time: 93 minutes

Reviewed by Kim Choe/Newshub.

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