Roger Sagner, the 343rd person to die under Oregon’s now 13-year-old death-with-dignity law, prepares to drink a foul concoction of lukewarm water and powder from 100 barbiturate capsules, chased with a cream soda.
“After that,” he says in the opening minutes of the documentary “How to Die in Oregon,” “we wait for me to die.”
Sagner chooses his last words carefully before the coma sets in: “It was easy, folks. It was so easy.”
When you think that these words will set the tone for this opening night film at the Big Sky Documentary Film Fest in Missoula, you’d be about half-right. There’s no question that the movie, winner of the Grand Jury prize for documentaries at Sundance last month, is advocating more states pass laws similar to Oregon’s, that it’s firmly in favor of sick people legally choosing not to prolong suffering.
But where it goes – into deeply personal territory of those considering their options – is not easy, folks. It’s hard and painful and moving.
It’s also an apt choice to open the Big Sky Fest, now entering its eighth year as Montana’s largest cinema event. Not only is it a huge get to open with a buzzed-about film coming out of Sundance and backed by HBO, it’s slightly ahead of a coming statewide debate. Montana is among a handful of states and the only one in the Rocky Mountain West considering legislation that could follow Oregon’s lead.
Bills are proposed by Montana legislators to both nullify and support what’s already a fairly lax, if also vague, acceptance of physician-prescribed, self-administered suicide in the state. In 2009, the Montana Supreme Court upheld the right of Robert Baxter, a Marine vet and long-haul truck driver suffering from leukemia, to accept the aid of physicians in choosing to die. Baxter’s case seemed to leave open Montanans’ chance to choose a prescription over a painful end, but it’s one case and open to interpretation.
What “How to Die” filmmaker Peter D. Richardson does best is make those like Robert Baxter the living story of the death option and how, exactly, legalizing it works.
None of these stories is more compelling than that of Cody Curtis, a 54-year-old woman who enters the film on a hike, a bit winded but seemingly in good health. Her liver’s failing, though, and the movie follows that inevitability in a gradual manner, taking each step with Curtis and her family.
We see her feeling good, planting a garden, making it through a summer she didn’t think she’d see. We see her set a date to die and than cruise right past it as she continues to enjoy life and to let herself imagine she might just “drift off” naturally. She gives away her jewelry to her daughter, then buys more because she’s still getting dressed every day, going out. She signs up for surgery, allowing doctors to drain several gallons of built-up fluid and bile from her stomach.
And then we see her, in her words, “declining.” It’s not exactly rapid, but it somehow seems unexpected, to the viewer and, to some degree, to Curtis, who’s so open and genteel and just-plain lovely, that we are pulling for some kind of reversal of fortunes. But that reversal, of course, is not what “How to Die” is about.
According to the New York Times, many at Sundance found the movie too painful to watch, leaving before it finished. It’s true that this doc is tougher than some, but it’s a hopeful thing to see sick people who are not dead yet exercising what makes us human – the ability to reason. They die when they are still themselves, a gift anyone who’s ever watched a slow and wrenching end knows is far too rare.
“How to Die in Oregon” opens the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival and screens for free at the Wilma Theater in Missoula on Friday, Feb. 11, at 6:30 p.m. Filmmaker Peter D. Richardson will be in attendance. HBO Documentary Films, sponsors of the screening and producers of the film, plans to air it this summer.
Also see New West’s coverage of the world premiere of “Columbus Day Legacy,” a film both for and against the controversial Columbus Day Parade in Denver; and “Roll-Out Cowboy” about a former Montanan and current rappin’ cowboy.
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