At the end of every year, The New York Times Magazine releases The Lives They Lived Issue. The year-end special honors those who have died in the past year, highlighting their triumphs and failures as experienced personally and publicly. As read at 2012’s interactive The Lives They Lived landing page, “This issue is meant to be a celebration of life, not an expression of grief.”
Now, for the first time, The Times Magazine has commissioned five filmmakers to create short documentaries about five individuals who passed away in 2013. The first of these digital documentaries is “Naturally, J.J. Cale” by Drew Christie, an animator, illustrator, and filmmaker who has previously created documentaries for The New York Times Opinion Pages documentary initiative Op-Docs.
“What makes these pieces different than traditional obits is they all make a point,” says Jason Spingarn-Koff, Op-Docs commissioning editor for The New York Times Opinion Pages. The films, which have been developed in conjunction with Op-Docs, all tell a story beyond a standard remembrance piece. “The mission is, in part, to spark a public dialogue in the same way op-ed does,” explains Spingarn-Koff. For example, the J.J. Cale doc tells the story of the musician turning down an opportunity to appear on “American Bandstand” due to his unwillingness to lip-sync his own music. The refusal, as Christie theorizes, would keep Cale from superstardom despite his revolutionary musical offerings, which many of his contemporaries like Eric Clapton borrowed from.
Launching digital video docs around The Lives They Lived issue, according to Samantha Henig, web editor for The New York Times Magazine, simply made sense because it provided an opportunity to not only expand the mag’s video output, but also to offer a different point of view on a particular topic. “The idea of the issue is already commissioning pieces from a variety of writers with a variety of voices,” said Henig. “It just made sense to throw filmmakers in there, too.”
Additional documentaries include “Spider Drove a Taxi,” a film about Johnnie “Spider” Footman, New York City’s oldest cab driver, by Joshua Z. Weinstein. On December 20, The Times Magazine will also release a doc highlighting WWII pilot Nadia Popova titled “Night Witches.” This film was directed by Alison Klayman, one of The New York Times’ 20 Directors to Watch.
These two will be followed by director Elaine McMillion’s “For Seamus,” which will premiere on December 23. The doc shines a light on Seamus Heaney, an Irish poet and Nobel Prize winner.
The series will end on December 26 with “Daredevil on a Snowmobile” from two-time Oscar-nominated filmmaker Lucy Walker. The documentary will examine the tragic death of Caleb Moore, a professional snowmobile racer who died in a crash at the Winter X Games XVII. Walker’s most recent film “The Crash Reel,” which is on next year’s Oscar short-list, is currently in theaters. It also examines the traumatic effects of snowboard injuries, focusing on those sustained by Kevin Pearce at the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Some (but not all) of The Lives They Lived shorts will also show as part of a 10-week Op-Docs series at New York’s IFC theater before feature films.