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How to Die in Oregon (2011)

February 11, 2011

The idea of “assisted suicide” has remained a sincerely difficult topic to really discuss among people, let alone try to argue. Like abortion, the main thing to keep clear is a level of understanding that it is not something easy for anyone—those seeking termination, or those on the medical side of the fence. In Peter Richardson’s in-depth documentary, How To Die in Oregon, such an understanding is achieved with honesty, dignity and courage.

How To Die in Oregon is constructed out of several stories, focusing heavily on the 10-month trial of a woman battling a crippling diagnosis of liver cancer. Filmmaker Peter Richardson spent nearly a year with Cody Curtis, her two children, her husband, and just as much, her personal physician. Embracing the presence of Richardson, a one-man film crew, in her home and in her family, Curtis’s final period of her life and the limbo she fell into along the way, is examined with grace and truth.

The 1994 enacted Death With Dignity Act made Oregon the first state to legalize an end of life choice, which is only prescribed by a doctor and further administered by the patient and family. The process is commonly known as “assisted suicide”, a term which one woman expresses offense over, claiming that suicide is specific to a self-induced termination in a state of good health, but mental anxiety and depression.

This woman’s case made for another predominant portion of How To Die in Oregon, following her initiative to pass identical legislature in the state of Washington. In one of the film’s many heartbreaking moments, she recounts the end of her husband’s life, his agonizing final month and his inevitable dying wish for her to bring Death With Dignity to Washington. After countless speeches and interviews, Richardson follows her all the way to November 2, 2008, when the initiative passed and her promise has finally been fulfilled.

How To Die in Oregon achieves its brilliance by drawing no attention to itself. While being a particularly clean and attractively shot piece of film, the elements are all lending to the intimacy and power of its subjects. At a post-viewing Q&A, both Peter Richardson and his editor described the important process of making the film. In reference to his being let in on so many heavy, personal moments with Cody’s family, Richardson said he kept his distance to where they often “forgot [he] was there.” Accounting for Richardson’s realism, his editor proclaimed that everything shot essentially had to be natural, and that Richardson would never direct people or call for retaking anything. And after watching such exquisite documentary filmmaking, that is exactly what you hope to hear.

As anyone could guess, How to Die in Oregon is not at all easy to watch. In my theater, someone checked out of their seat during the powerful opening scene; before even the title had faded in. Coming face-to-face with such upfront death is a task that most people are not equipped or ready for. However, these stories are important in providing a necessary angle on a weighty but crucial topic within humanity.

The review of this film is, in some ways, an exclusive feature, as it is based on a screening at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival which was followed by a Q&A with the director.

HBO will be running How To Die in Oregon further into 2011 as part of its documentary series.

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