Sundance 2011 Review: HOW TO DIE IN OREGON

Kate Erbland

by: Kate Erbland
January 24th, 2011

Rating: 3.5/5

Director: Peter Richardson

In 1994, Oregon passed the Death with Dignity Act, becoming the first U.S. state to legalize “physician aid-in-dying” for the terminally ill who chose to use it. Not a law that legalizes euthanasia, the Death with Dignity Act sets rigid guidelines for how it can be done – namely, that the ill must be of sound enough mind to know what they’re doing, and they must drink down their lethal doses with their own hand. Chronicling this for a documentary results in an understandably difficult moviegoing experiences, but HOW TO DIE IN OREGON treats its subject matter with such respect that the film is both hard to watch and even harder to turn away from.

For those looking to utilize the Death with Dignity Act, many find just its very existence comforting, something that has the potential to give them a choice and some control over their lives. The people we meet in HOW TO DIE IN OREGON have been through so much, both physically and emotionally, that it is difficult to grasp the enormity of their experience. It’s not that they can kill themselves, it’s that they can kill themselves – and it’s all their choice.

HOW TO DIE IN OREGON is set up to include a number of stories about different people that have somehow been effected by the Death with Dignity Act – from Sue who volunteers for Compassion and Choices, to Final Exit author Derek Humphry, to former TV broadcaster Ray Carnay (known for his voice, Carnay tragically died of throat cancer). Yet, the film primarily belongs to two very different women.

Cody Curtis, a vibrant wife and mother of two, was diagnosed with liver cancer - and subsequently endured a hellacious treatment, recovery, and relapse. Cody, ruined by both her physical pain and the emotional strain it has put on everyone around her, looks at her assisted death as the ultimate respite, with peace from the pain and a decision that belongs solely to her. The film follows Cody and her family on the long road to her final choice, one layered with equal parts warmth and tragedy. We also meet Nancy Niedzielski, a Seattle woman who campaigns to establish a Death with Dignity Act in Washington at the behest of her husband, a man who suffered tremendously before ultimately succumbing to cancer. Both women believe very much in the Death with Dignity Act, but for different, albeit deeply personal, reasons.

HOW TO DIE IN OREGON uses Nancy’s story as a way of discussing the political and legal repercussions of the act, but the film fails to flesh out the arguments against the act. We know that Nancy’s campaign is met with resistance, but we learn little about the other side and their reasons and beliefs. Of course, this allows a film that seems primed for controversy to simply present stories, judgment not included. We are asked to observe, but debate is not necessarily inspired by what we see (nor is it required). Likewise, the film doesn’t employ any camera tricks or cheats, it’s presented in the straight-forward classic documentary style, letting the story guide it.

The film does, however, have the curious effect of inspiring anger in its audience – anger at the situation, anger at illness, anger that has no tangible outlet or target. But so many of the people in HOW TO DIE WITH OREGON face their situations with both courage and humor that the film never sinks into alienating sadness. It’s, simply put, wonderfully human. It is an enormously touching film, an unflinching piece of work that thoughtfully attempts to tell a number of stories that, even on their own, are wrenching.

HOW TO DIE IN OREGON leaves its audience simply wrung out – it’s an experience of a film, one likely to not just elicit tears from its viewers, but full sobs, a deep mourning for everything (and everyone) we have just seen. In their last moments, both Roger and Cody marvel at how easy it was – their final slip into the other side. But everything we have seen in HOW TO DIE IN OREGON tells us otherwise – none of this was easy. Not one minute, not one breath.

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