How to Die in Oregon – Directed by Peter D. Richardson. By Simon Miraudo.
How to Die in Oregon – Peter D. Richardson’s documentary about physician-assisted suicide, but more so, the tragedy and beauty of life – opens with a terminally ill man named Roger Sagner preparing for imminent death. The footage was not shot by Richardson; it has been documented by a relative, who in Roger’s final moments wishes she hadn’t. Sagner does not commit suicide in the sense that we understand it, nor is he being euthanised. Rather, he is exercising his rights as a citizen of Oregon to take advantage of the Death with Dignity Act, and will drink a prescribed medical concoction that will allow him to slip into a coma and pass away. He calmly reasserts his decision before going ahead – “It will kill me and make me happy” – and then peacefully, even incredulously, shares with his love ones how he feels: “It was easy.”
The first and only glimpse we’re given of Sagner’s life is his final one, and it’s difficult to process. Here is a man making a decision with the poise, directness and acceptance that the rest of us would find unthinkable. Richardson spends the rest of the film helping us understand how someone can get to that point, and he similarly does it with poise, directness and an acceptance of humanity’s great burden. The film is comprised of a number of vignettes in which we meet Oregonians with terminal illnesses, contemplating the way in which they would like to die. There’s Ray Carnay – the golden-voiced TV presenter and current throat cancer victim who wishes to record his own eulogy before they surgically remove his prize possession – and Randy Stroup – a lower class man who’s dumbfounded that his insurance won’t cover chemotherapy, but will happily offer him the option of assisted-suicide – among others. Richardson focuses primarily on Cody Curtis, a big hearted and beautiful family woman who is told she only has six months left to live … and then miraculously outlives that projection, and even begins to feel better. But the universe being as cruel as it is, Cody discovers her “new normal” is only temporary, and eventually she experiences a rapid decline in health.
The film ends as it begins; with Cody reaching the end of her tether and deciding that her time is up. The decision was not made lightly, and we’ve seen her undergo great suffering before this point. Yet these are among her final words as she drifts away into unconsciousness: “it’s so easy”. And she sounds just as peaceful as Roger Sagner did in the film’s opening. How to Die in Oregon will polarise viewers – and it should – as they view it through the prism of their own political and religious beliefs. Richardson’s agenda is never in doubt, and he’s certainly stacked the interview subjects with those in favour of the Death with Dignity Act. But the film is not a polemic (even though there is a brief digression in which we follow Oregon’s sister state Seattle trying to pass a similar law). It is not concerned with selling us on the idea of assisted suicide. It considers the thought-process of a terminally ill person in a world where it is a viable option. How to Die in Oregon features no fight with bureaucracy, only the universal fights against nature, time and oneself. Because of that, we are given an insight to countless seemingly-throwaway-but-actually-priceless moments of humanity and mortality, at both its most fragile and most beautiful. You may not agree with Richardson’s stance on assisted suicide, and you may balk at the decisions made by Cody Curtis and Robert Sagner. Even I have difficulty contemplating and understanding the decisions made here, and I say that as someone who has witnessed a person very close to me succumb to a debilitating illness and transition in mere moments from living to dead. All I know is that I cried pretty much all the way through How to Die in Oregon, and that Cody and Robert’s final words of “it’s so easy” offers me great comfort when I think about that last journey into the abyss.
The Washington Post raises some valid criticisms against the film, particularly calling out its one-sidedness (although let it be known that no film can claim to be truly fair and balanced). They also balk at the definition of “dignity” and question what it means exactly to die with it. Although Richardson doesn’t answer that particular query, through his filmmaking he exemplifies it. He does not intrude on the final moments between Cody and her family. Although she is miked up, the camera is left outside her window to gaze in through the curtains, allowing the Curtis’ one last evening together. Even he realises that this is just a film, and in that room is a moment more personal and private than we need to see. We’re to go out and make those own moments, preferably while the people we love are still alive. He is never manipulative, and always sensitive. That’s dignity.