Sundance film puts spotlight on euthanasia

by Romain Raynaldy
Director Peter Richardson poses for a portrait during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival on January 25, in Park City, Utah. His film "How to Die in Oregon", being shown at the Sundance Film Festival, casts a sober light on the reality of euthanasia in one US state

They are terminally ill, and they have decided to die -- a heartbreakingly honest film at the Sundance Film Festival casts a sober light on the reality of euthanasia, in one US state.

"How to Die in Oregon" by US filmmaker Peter Richardson is in competition at the prestigious independent movie fest in the Utah ski resort of Park City, which climaxes this Sunday.

In 1994 the western state became the first in the US to legalize euthanasia for certain terminally-ill patients. Since then more than 500 Oregonians have decided to end their days with medical assistance.

Cancer-stricken Roger Sagner is one of them and Richardson's documentary opens with images of his final moments, as he is about to drink the mixture of drugs which will send him into a coma, and then kill him.

But there is absolutely no sadness in the scene.

Surrounded by his family, the old man is perfectly lucid as he is asked legal questions by the volunteer helping him in his final acts. Is he sure of his decision? Do you know what taking this medicine means?

"Bring me that goddamn glass," says Sagner. And before lying down to await death, he thanks the voters of Oregon, saying: "I thank the Oregonians for allowing me the honor of doing myself in!"

Richardson said the film's structure was easy to decide. "I knew at that point, making the film, that if I received a footage of someone using the law, or was able to shoot it myself, I wanted to open the film in that way.

"I didn't want the film to have this narrative structure which builds up to this climax, if you will, of the death scene, which I think would be manipulative and kind of inappropriate," Richardson told AFP.

"Here it is. It's not gruesome or gore or fantastic, but it's actually very calm and peaceful."

One of the most striking things about the film is its refusal to descend into voyeurism.

Richardson explained: "I never had any doubt about the story that I wanted to tell, which was the direct experience of people, in Oregon, who were considering using the law," known as Death With Dignity.

"We were dealing with the actual and not the theoretical, and the personal and not the political," he said.

The documentary also tells the story of Cody Curtis, a 54-year-old with stomach cancer.

With stunning strength and honesty, she recounts for more than a year her moods, her fears, sometimes her hopes, and in the end her determination to take the fatal medicine, which she keeps close at hand.

The director admitted that at times he was upset filming such intimate moments in people's lives. "One of my primary concerns, before making the film, was: 'Can I actually do this, emotionally, go through this thing?'

"And I didn't know the answer to that question. But I was so compelled basically, to tell the story, that I just went into it."

The film also follows the struggle of a widow in Washington state, whose husband suffered horribly in death, to get euthanasia legalized in the state -- which it was in 2008.

Only a few countries around the world have done the same, including the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland.

In the US, the western state of Montana legalized it through a legal challenge, although it could be overturned next month, while near the east coast Vermont could also soon pass a law similar to that in force in Oregon.

Ultimately Richardson stressed that the people whose stories are told wanted to share them, to help others.

"I was there at these individuals' invitation. They invited me to tell their story. For all these people, their experience, and their shared story might serve to comfort other people.

"It was a very emotional journey, and it's still emotional."