How To Die In Oregon

How To Die In Oregon

****1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Documentaries don't come much tougher to watch - or much stronger in terms of argument - than How To Die In Oregon. As the title implies, it is concerned with those who, due to terminal illness, choose to take a lethal drink rather than struggle on right to the end. They do so, legally in Oregon, in accordance with a physician-assisted suicide law passed in the state in 1994.

Anyone entering the cinema with any curiosity as to whether director Peter Richardson will show someone taking their own life has their question answered within the first five minutes when we see terminally ill cancer sufferer Roger Sagner - on video shot by a relative - take the powerful drink that makes him slip into a coma before killing him.

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"It was easy folks," he says in a bid to reassure those who may come after him, before closing his eyes, "it was easy."

It is an incredibly moving bit of footage, which clearly shows Roger's determination to exit this world in a manner of his choosing. And it forces you put aside the issue of whether you yourself would want to take your own life or not - almost unanswerable, one suspects, unless you are faced with a terminal illness - and consider the more burning and apposite question, does anyone have the right to deny this man his right to choose? It's also a smart decision on the part of Richardson, as it acts as a shorthand both for the debate he is about to present and, by removing that 'will he or won't he show it?' question from the equation, he makes the viewer more open to the minutiae of the argument rather than simply waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The rest of the film goes on to track the process of several people considering ending their lives at a time they appoint alongside the story of Nancy Ziedzielski's attempts to get a similar Death With Dignity law passed in Washington state. Her battle is a truly personal one, stemming from the promise she made to her stricken husband on his death bed, whose last days at the hands of brain cancer were undoubtedly excruciatingly painful.

Her story - manning phones, handing out flyers, talking to everyone she can - acts as a counterpoint to the tales of those who already have the right to take their lives in Oregon and, particularly, the devastatingly emotional journey being undertaken by Cody Curtis. Cody has the sort of sunny-side up personality that all of us come into contact with occasionally. With a bright outlook and lively sense of humour, it's almost impossible to believe, in early shots of her, that she is suffering from inoperable liver cancer. But this 54-year-old mum has been given just six months to live and allows Richardson to track her progress - and her mental ups and downs - as she prepares to drink the cocktail of drugs that will end her life.

Make no mistake, this is a difficult film to watch - but it is also a surprisingly uplifting one. Richardson tells each person's story with care and compassion and finds room to present opposing viewpoints, although it is clear where his sympathies ultimately lie. There are doctors here who disagree with the law and he also features footage of cancer sufferer Randy Stroup who, though vehemently against taking his own life, was horrifyingly told that while he would not be offered any further operative help to try to cure his disease, the insurer would pay for him to opt for Death With Dignity. It's this sort of personal story that broadens out Richardson's film, to touch on the worrying state of healthcare for those who have only limited insurance. The director also speaks to Derek Humphry, who founded the Hemlock Society, in a bid to offer historical context regarding the right to die.

The key to this film is dignity. Those here show almost unbelievable amounts of bravery in the face of the stark choices they are up against and Richardson's camerawork is intimate without being intrusive - his shooting of Cody's final day, in particular, is sensitively handled for the family yet emotionally powerful for the viewer. Whether the film, which already has a best documentary award under its belt from Sundance, will bring about political change remains to be seen but there is no doubt that it is personally affecting and raises issues that demand to be considered.

Reviewed on: 13 Feb 2011
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A look at Oregonians who choose physician-assisted suicide - and those battling to bring in similar laws in other states.
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Director: Peter Richardson

Year: 2011

Runtime: 107 minutes

Country: US


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