Euthanasia – on the big and the small screen

"How to Die in Oregon" is a documentary premièring at the prestigious Sundance Festival this month

How to Die in Oregon tells the stories of terminally ill Oregonians as they decide when, and whether, to end their lives at the time and circumstance of their own choosing under Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. From its opening scene, where a terminally ill cancer patient takes a lethal dose of Seconal and literally dies on camera, it becomes shockingly clear that How to Die in Oregon is a special film.

Says director Peter D Richardson, “What inspired me to make the film was the desire to explore the profound choices an individual would have to make in order to take the life-ending medication. I knew that telling this story was going to be difficult because it would require extraordinary access and a willingness to participate in the film, not only on the part of an individual but sometimes an entire family and, critically, a physician. It wasn’t until two years into filming that I found what I felt to be this critical combination of characters to tell every aspect of the story. Cody Curtis, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and her family gave me access into their lives and insight into the choice Oregonians have at end of life.”

“When Cody’s physician Dr. Morris agreed to be on camera — first to film regular checkups with Cody and eventually to provide an on-camera interview — I was very surprised. Up until that point, in both casual conversation and on-camera, Cody had only referred to her as ‘Dr. M’ in order to preserve her anonymity. Physician aid-in-dying is still an immensely controversial issue, especially for doctors, so it was at great risk that Dr. Morris agreed to participate. My reaction to the news was one both of excitement and a great sense of responsibility: a responsibility to get Cody and Dr. Morris’s story right, both for them and for the many others who would eventually see and learn from it.”

“I think physician aid-in-dying is likely to be the next major medical/ethical issue we confront as a nation. An aging baby boomer population that will desire greater control and choice in end-of-life decisions is going to put a microscope on every aspect of how we die in this country. My hope for the film is that it opens a dialogue on this critical issue by taking a look at the experiences of a few Oregonians. None of that would be possible without the courage of individuals like Dr. Morris, Cody Curtis, her family, and the many others who allowed me into their lives. Though these individuals ultimately had a choice about when they died, a choice most others do not have, I believe there is much to be learned from their stories and the way that they approached the end.”

Sundance is the world’s leading showcase for independent cinema, chaired each year in Utah by celebrity Robert Redford.

WATCH A CLIP FROM HOW TO DIE IN OREGON AND AN INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR PETER D RICHARDSON HERE

And on the small screen . . .
Also good news for readers who saw our review of Al Pacino’s portrayal of the euthanasia doctor Jack Kevorkian. Called You Don’t Know Jack, this major movie helped to break ground as one of the year’s top films that is only available in rare preview screenings and American HBO premium TV. It is part of a major offensive by the American cable giant to compete directly with the cinema. But UK viewers will have the opportunity to see the Kevorkian movie and other leading new films unavailable in cinemas, courtesy of Sky Atlantic – a new channel that launches next month. Highlights in February also include Martin Scorsese’s Boardwalk Empire.

Since reported on Exit Euthanasia Blog and winning Emmys, You Don’t Know Jack has gone on to enormous critical acclaim and a Golden Globe for Pacino’s performance.

How to Die in Oregon Festival screenings: 26th-28th January 2011
Sundance Film Festival (link)

Watch Al Pacino receive the Golden Globe – standing ovation (video)
You Don’t Know Jack on Sky Atlantic (HBO UK)
n.b. Extensive coverage and analysis of You Don’t Know Jack appears in the printed edition of our magazine, Exit Newsletter, Vol.30 No.2, available to members/subscribers.

Update, 31 January 2011 – How to Die in Oregon has won the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

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