I wish some sort of church group would protest Peter D. Richardson's 'How to Die in Oregon,' a simply shot but perfectly serviceable film that needs far more attention, even if negative, than Kevin Smith's latest. HBO produced the documentary and plans to air it later this year, so it won't fall between the cracks, yet it's also not the most buzzed-about doc at Sundance, mainly because of its hard to bear subject matter. The film tackles the controversial laws in Oregon and Washington that permit physician-assisted suicide.
Actually, suicide is considered the wrong word for what the law allows, because of the negative connotation that suicides are mostly all selfish and depressed people giving up on life. Those who choose to die through the Death With Dignity Act consist of people suffering great pain and shame from lethal afflictions, such as cancer, who want to burn out brightly before fading away miserably and with gradually failing parts.
Hopefully that "burn out" comment is not taken as too insensitive. I admit I needed to harden my heart going into the film, having heard about how it opens with an old man drinking liquid Seconal, which puts him quickly into a coma and then to death -- on screen. And in spite of my attempts, I still got choked up. The rest of the audience, and this has apparently been the case with all screenings at the fest, was sniffling like crazy throughout and particularly at the end. Basically most of the people you meet in the film die before it's through. No others on camera, however, and actually there aren't a whole lot of subjects, only enough to represent different examples of participants and sides of the cause.
Mainly the film follows a single woman, 54-year-old Cody Curtis, as she plans for death with dignity after being diagnosed with only six months left to live as a result of liver cancer. Things that happen to her during this time will make you debate the pros and cons of the choice, if not the law, inside your head. Richardson also films another cancer patient who does not believe in Death With Dignity, especially when it appears insurance companies and the government may recommend or encourage it because it will save them the money that would go towards treatment.
'How to Die in Oregon' features no bells and whistles or big narrative surprises or interesting camerawork that gets most docs notice these days (though the excellent final shot/moment is a distinct and unexpected way to end). All it has, and all it needs, is a controversial topic addressed sufficiently and respectably. It does raise awareness and inspires a conversation. There is not one of us who this moral dilemma and debate could not affect one day. So it will possibly scare you as much as it will rip your emotions. Even if you try to guard yourself up. I'll be honest, I prepared myself so much to not get upset with the tragedy that I ended up exploding at a moment of sudden joy experienced by one of the characters.
Regardless of your beliefs and views on the Death With Dignity Act, the issue is undoubtedly tricky to contemplate and consider, and this film will both help your thinking and yet also should continue to complicate it for you. It had me changing my mind over and over. So please see it before offering your opinion.