Eyeing the Truth: Sept. 2017

Obit. (Amazon Prime)

Obit., the fantastic documentary about the men and women who put together the obituary section of the New York Times every day, paints one of the most painfully realistic portraits of the act of writing I have ever seen in a movie. The film journeys through the entire process of writing an obituary, from deciding who merits an article to striving to come up with a narrative that reads fittingly to deciding what facts are important and what picture best captures their life. It is a balancing act of honoring the dead while also being truthful to who the person is and respecting their struggles. Along the way, we visit with photo editors, stop off at the one-man “morgue” of clippings that captures the entire history of the Times, and get glimpses into the lives of those who were deemed worthy of citation. We watch one writer spend precious time debating between making a word an adjective or a verb and which sounds better, while another berates himself for a retraction that could have been avoided had he not been so detailed in his word choice. Nothing comes easy in this job, and the film doesn’t shirk away from that truth at all. Anyone who has ever written anything, especially on deadline, can relate; as I try to piece together this review, the irony of struggling to write about their struggle to write is not lost on me.

The final statement of Obit., said straight to the camera by one of the writers, captures the true essence of the film perfectly: “there’s nothing you can do about dying, by the way. I just thought I’d point that out.” The film is filled with people for whom death is an everyday reality they face, but in a celebratory way instead of a morbid way. For these obituary writers, their job is to celebrate life in a time of death, and the stories they capture put a lot in perspective: grand achievements at a young age (Michael Jackson), quiet achievements that changed the world in silent ways (the media consultant for John F. Kennedy), and long-ago accomplishments that deserve to be remembered decades later (a teenage aviatrix whose pre-written obituary sat in storage for eight decades). Some of these people get obituaries that consist of tens of thousands of words; others get cut off at 500 words, or squeezed out to 800 words.

At one point, a reporter rattles off the obituaries he has written in advance, of people who are still living but perhaps past their most important work. It is a morbid thought, but also a lovely one. It puts a lot of your own life in perspective watching it, making you wonder if you would ever merit an obituary, and if you want to do something to add to the word count.

Awake, A Dream From Standing Rock (Netflix)

One of the most vivid stories of the last year was the protest at Standing Rock, where protesters tried to stop a leg of the Dakota Oil Pipeline from going through an Indian Reservation. This has led to a series of documentaries making good use of the indelible images, dramatic stories, and inherent conflict that has arisen from South Dakota. Netflix recently released one of the first of these, Awake, a Dream from Standing Rock. Directed by three filmmakers, two of them previous Oscar nominees, the film has an immediacy about it. It has been ripped right from the headlines and, due to using a lot of footage that judging by the quality was originally livestreamed online, feels like it is unfolding in real time.

Dream is a good way to describe this film, not only because the film vividly captures the dreams of these protesters, but because the film also unfolds as if a dream. The filmmakers often don’t give us context to what we are seeing, and the narration is often more poetic than concrete. Couple that with the images of smoke-filled nights, the fantastical lighting of South Dakota, and the weathered faces of the protesters, and the film can often feel like some other-worldly painting; then it snaps you back into reality and you realize how haunting this nightmare really is.

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