In 1994, Oregon became the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide, and since then over 500 Oregonians have chosen to end their lives under a law that remains controversial nearly two decades later.
The promo material for “How to Die in Oregon” states that director Peter Richardson examines “both sides” of the issue of physician-assisted suicide, but his documentary is not exactly balanced. Nor should it be, considering the two sides. On one side are terminally ill people who wish to die with dignity, and the people who support their right, as well as the notion that a civilized society must consider mercy a virtue. On the other side are the people who not only want to make sure that we all can share in God’s gift of righteous suffering, but that we all must. How the hell do you balance that?
Richardson does provide brief screen time to a few opponents of the Oregon law, but his overwhelming focus is on the sufferers. He doesn’t waste any time. The film opens with a video of Roger Sagner. Bed-ridden, surrounded by family and friends, he prepares to gulp down his Seconal drink that, in his words, will “end my life and make me happy.” He notes that the drink tastes like wood before he rests his head on his pillow and offers “the next person” some encouraging words: “It was easy, folks.”
The scene is anything but easy to watch and, of course the decision to end one’s life is never easy, though some of the crassest opponents accuse sufferers of wanting to take the easy way out. Tell that to Cody Curtis, a bright, vibrant young woman, a wife and mother, with terminal liver cancer. She has been told she has several months to live and that the final months will be decidedly unpleasant. When we first meet her she is out and about, trying to enjoy what days she has left on a walk through the forest with her family while also talking about her plans to take the medication that will end her life. Richardson visits many people in the course of the film, but Curtis is his protagonist. She has invited Richardson and, by proxy, everyone else to share her final days, and the journey is an extraordinary one marked by steely resolve, false hopes, and a final concession only after a brave and grueling struggle.
The only silver lining for Curtis in the entire ordeal is the knowledge that she ultimately has control, a painless drug already in her possession that she can take at a time of her choosing, a choice that a frighteningly large portion of the populace wants to deny to the people who need it. She is in no hurry to kill herself, and even dares to dream again of a long life when her health takes an unanticipated, if temporary, turn for the better. Certain films demand to be described with certain adjectives, and “unflinching” is the one that must inevitably be attached to this one. We see Cody wracked by sudden stabs of pain, we see her bloated from fluid buildup, and we even see her at her most radiant. She makes a canny and justifiably bitter observation familiar to many who have been through such a situation: people keep telling her she’s never looked better, and it doesn’t occur to them that it’s because the cancer is wasting her body down to the thin ideal propagated by glossy magazines the world over.
Slippery slope arguments merit consideration, but only a combination of religious ideology and callousness could explain why anyone would think it was preferable to force someone to suffer unbearably until “nature” takes its course. Of course, humans and their medical inventions are a product of a natural process as well, but we all pick and choose to suit our ethical whims. Regardless, the film makes a crystal clear argument that there can be no more fundamental right than the right to die on our own terms, safely and with a minimum of pain. A society that does not support that right has no claim at being civilized.
Nonetheless, resistance remains stout which makes the documentary’s parallel story vital as well. After losing her husband to a horrible, lingering demise, Nancy Ziedzielski honored his dying wishes by spearheading the battle to get a Death with Dignity law passed in the state of Washington. It’s tempting to think that progress is inevitable, but her story is a reminder that only the efforts of motivated activists really make a difference. And she puts up one heck of a battle.
The film ends as it began, with a death. While using audio from inside, Richardson shoots discreetly from outside the home as Cody and her family share her last moments. There is a long tradition in film criticism of referring to documentary subjects as “social actors,” but it seems inadequate to refer to Cody Curtis as an actor or character. She is a presence, solid and unyielding, and the loss of her presence is devastating even for viewers who have only spent an hour or so with her. But knowing that she was able to choose the time and means to end an agony she bore as long as possible provides hope and even inspiration.
The film is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. The image quality is solid all-around though it varies with the use of some archival footage.
The film is presented in Dolby Digital Stereo. The audio mix is clear and is pretty straightforward. No subtitles are provided.
The DVD includes 43 minutes of Deleted Scenes, featuring subjects only briefly seen or not seen at all in the main cut of the film. The only other extra is a 3 minute Trailer.
I can’t believe there’s even still a debate about such a basic human right in the 21st century so I have no way to assess whether the documentary will prove to be an effective tool for social advocacy. I do know that it is a sensitive and deeply moving portrait that you won’t find easy to shake.
“How to Die in Oregon” won the Grand Jury Price in the Documentary Competition at Sundance in 2011, and it’s easy to understand why.