Interview with Award-winning Film Director Vanessa Gould

If you look at Vanessa Gould’s IMDb profile, it is not hard to see that she is a woman of many talents. She described herself as a “nomad.” She is a film producer, a painter, a writer, and a composer.

Gould’s life has not always been this diverse or colorful. At the age of 27, she found herself working in a very dull job. A friend of hers encouraged Gould to take some risks during a conversation over dinner. “It’s now or never,” Gould thought to herself. So, she quit her job and bought a cheap entry-level camcorder for $296 on eBay. That was the beginning of her filmmaking career, which has brought her recognition and awards worldwide. Her documentary “Between the Folds” became a sensation in the documentary world in less than two years. The film has been translated into more than 10 languages and was featured in more than 45 film festivals around the world.

“I did not think a single human being was going to see [Between the Folds], the whole movie was a practice to me,” Gould said in a recent interview with a class of journalism students at Brandeis University.

The subject of Between the Folds was Eric Joisel, a poor, solitary French sculptor who specialized in origami. Gould and Joisel became good friends during the production process.

Two years after the release of the film, Joisel died of lung cancer at the age of 53.

“I had this very sick feeling that there is nothing culturally in place to catch the fragments of his life,” Gould said.

Gould wanted to preserve Joisel’s legacy. She contacted more than 20 newspapers around the world to get someone to run an obituary on him. Only one paper called her: the New York Times. As the reporter Margalit Fox from the Times and Gould spoke over the phone about Joisel’s life, Gould realized that “even in the 72 hours following his death, there was fundamental information about his life that we can never find, things that only he knew.”

This event prompted her to make her second film, Obit, a documentary on the Times’ obituary department.

The obituary page is one of the less frequently visited pages in newspapers since it is about death, according to an interview in the film. After reading more than 1,000 obituaries from the Times in preparation for the film, Gould said that the pieces written by the Times highlight the exact opposite: life. The obituary department takes a different approach to writing obituaries. Rather than focusing on the cause of death of a person, it is typically only a sentence in a 500-600 word story. 

Going into the interviewing process for the film, Gould did not know what to expect. Luckily, her time with the writers allowed her to capture the exact process through which obituaries are written. Through the lens of Gould’s camera, the world got to see how journalists turn deaths into a celebration of life.

One of the obituaries was about William P. Wilson, a television consultant who helped Sen. John F. Kennedy for his first presidential debate with Vice President Richard Nixon in 1960. For Gould, this was the perfect behind-the-scenes, a never-heard-before story that would have been lost in history if the obit writers did not pick up on it. The film also featured some footage of Wilson prior to the debate which had been buried in a television studio’s basement for decades. The clips showed exactly what Wilson did to prepare Kennedy for the debate and Kennedy later said his debate performance helped him win the election.

Gould’s film also told the story of the journalists who write the obituaries and how they struggle with deadlines and information gathering like other reporters. She captured the human moments of the obituary department: journalists stressing over the deadline like kids worrying about their homework, talking with the family members of the deceased, and standing up to pour their fourth cup of coffee in the early afternoon.

As the Times launched its new obituary series “Those We’ve Lost” for the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic, the obituary department is continuing its mission of “capturing the history before it is lost” just like the film Obit described in vivid detail.

Gould’s latest project was scoring music for a documentary called It Takes a Lunatic. The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2019. She said that all of her other works were  on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.