Sunday, October 2, 2011

VIFF 2011: “How to Die in Oregon”

 In cinema, we often see death portrayed as collateral damage in action movies, especially in car chases and jingoistic machismo Stallone / Norris / Schwarzenegger films. Rarely do we get to question mortality on celluloid as a point of pride, of dignity, and as a right. Peter Richardson’s remarkable documentary How to Die in Oregon, playing now at the Vancouver International Film Festival, gets to pose that question.

The film focuses on Cody Curtis, a then-54-year-old Oregon woman who was diagnosed with liver cancer. She was given a prognosis of six months to live, and anticipated losing her faculties and her dignity well before she loses her life. Cody is a whip-smart, energetic individual who has accepted her prognosis and her mortality, and makes the rational decision to take her own life, on her own terms. It also follows the movement in the State of Washington to pass proposition I-1000, the state’s own right-to-die legislation. Although the film also follows several other subjects and how they deal with the subject, it’s never ghoulish, striking the right balance between acceptance and good humour.
It’s the State of Oregon that first got the national debate on right-to-die legislation and was the first to pass it into law, in 1994.

How to Die in Oregon deals with the subject matter-of-factly. There are no discussions of religion or philosophy, although the film has a strong philosophical slant running throughout. Richardson wisely allows the film’s subjects to do the talking, leaving aside any unnecessary voiceover narration, and simply stating in black title cards when time has passed and a subject has ceased mortality. The film does not demonize the right-to-life organizations or movements who opposed these laws, because that would have been a cheap way to make a point and would have been spiritually removed from the film’s point: that these people who want to take their own lives are making conscious, difficult, rational but emotionally taxing decisions to do so, and they want to do it with their dignity intact. Making the film a left-wing political treatise would render it pure propaganda, rather than the thoughtful, challenging work of art it is. Even the protesters against the movement are given a voice in the film, and it is an eloquent, measured response, unlike the blowhard, extremist but popular soundbites one may expect to hear on Fox News or conservative radio. Richardson chose his subjects well. When I saw this film yesterday, there was not a dry eye in the house. The crocodile tears in romantic narrative dramas have got nothing on the sobering, still sadness and catharsis I witnessed at How to Die in Oregon.

Peter Richardson’s How to Die in Oregon has played twice in the opening days of VIFF and plays one more time on Monday, October 10, 2011 at Empire Granville Cinemas. That the film is playing on the Canadian Thanksgiving will give those who see this intensely moving, almost emotionally unbearable documentary plenty to consider and be thankful for on the holiday. This HBO production has already aired in the United States and has spent most of the year making the rounds on the film festival circuit, receiving prizes at Ashland and Hot Docs, and the coveted Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. You can find out more about the film, and related organizations, on their website.