SXSW FILM 2011
By Don Simpson | May 21, 2011
Director: Peter Richardson
Watching characters die on film is never easy for me, but watching real people really die on film is a harrowing experience at best. I should clarify — Peter Richardson’s How To Die In Oregon is not a snuff film, it is about Oregonians who, due to terminal illness, are able to choose to take a lethal dose of medicine that will bring upon near-instantaneous death; a task that is legal in Oregon, in accordance with Death With Dignity, a state physician-assisted suicide law passed in 1994. The video footage of each death serves as legal documentation to prove that the patient died of sound mind and of their own hand.
Within the first few minutes we witness — via video footage shot by a relative — cancer sufferer Roger Sagner take a few slurps of the physician-prescribed medicine that promptly knocks him into a coma before finally killing him. Before his final breath, he assures his family and friends that “it was easy”, but the act is certainly is not easy to watch. To be honest, I did not expect Richardson to show this man’s (or anyone’s) actual moment of death; but it is amazing just how powerful the moment is. The film is only a few minutes from its opening credits and already the eyes of the audience are blurry with tears. We never even got to know this man, but suddenly we are crying. How did this happen? Honestly, I think Richardson deserves an Oscar specifically for being able to produce tears earlier and in a higher percentage of eyes than any other filmmaker.
Richardson gives us a few moments to dry our eyes and blow our noses, as he begins to follow a series of terminally ill patients during the last years, months, weeks or days of their lives. The foremost of his subjects is Cody Curtis, a bright and cheery 54-year-old wife and mother who has been diagnosed with just six months to live thanks in no small part to an inoperable liver cancer. The prolonged timespan allows Richardson to really hook the emotional coils of the audience as he tracks Curtis’ physical and mental ups and downs during her procession towards death. Curtis is also the perfect model for a person of sound mind as she logically and thoughtfully contemplates (along with her doctor and family) Death With Dignity and determines how she will know when enough is enough.
In parallel, we are shown Nancy Ziedzielski’s attempts to get a similar law passed in her home state of Washington. Ziedzielski adopted this struggle as a result of a promise she made to her husband on his death bed. Her story acts a way to show just how dedicated and tenacious constituents need to be in order to get a measure like Oregon’s Death With Dignity to pass in their state.
Though it is readily apparent which team he is rooting for, Richardson does offer some opposing viewpoints via doctors who disagree with the law as well as a cancer sufferer — Randy Stroup — who is adamantly opposed to taking his own life, but is told by his insurance provider that they will no longer fund any further attempts to cure his disease, but his insurer would pay if he opts for Death With Dignity. Richardson brilliantly uses Stroup’s situation as a touching juxtaposition of someone who does not want to take their own life but outside forces are attempting to convince him to take the most cost-efficient route. Should Stroup be entitled to medical treatment for as long as he wants it, despite the costs? Stroup’s story thus touches upon the state of health care for those who have limited insurance (yet it also might make some wonder if “Obamacare” will increasingly turn to options such as Death With Dignity for terminally-diagnosed patients in order to cut medical costs).
The key to How To Die In Oregon is how to die with dignity. Richardson’s subjects reveal an amazing amount of bravery and fortitude in the face of the most difficult choice they will ever have to make. Does anyone have the right to deny people in other states their right to determine the outcome of their own life?
What remains to be seen is whether or not How To Die In Oregon will bring about any social or political change in a country where personal freedoms and Christianity seem to be in a constant tug-o-war. It has always been confusing to me when people call for more personal freedoms except for when it conflicts with their own religious beliefs. Does anyone — especially a state or federal government — have the right to force religious ideologies upon others?
How To Die In Oregon — winner of the best documentary award at Sundance 2011 — is like an emotional sledgehammer to the gut, that strikes over and over and over again. That said — I do not see how anyone else could ever make a documentary on this subject that is more engaging and powerful. It is a magnificent film that I hope everyone, no matter what their political beliefs, will watch once. I say once because, to be perfectly honest, I refuse to watch How To Die In Oregon ever again; but I will never need to, because its effect on me will never fade.