Winner of the Grand Jury Prize in Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival: How to Die in Oregon

Jennifer Davis | Boulder Weekly

A penetrating look at death and dying, How to Die in Oregon is an HBO-produced documentary that explores the lives of people suffering from debilitating terminal illness.  Oregon was the first state in the nation to legalize physician-assisted suicide in 1994, and, since then, over 500 terminally ill Oregonians have ended their lives. The film opens with footage, director and cinematographer Peter Richardson didn’t actually shoot.

A man surrounded by his friends and family is about to drink a lethal dose of Seconal that will put him into a coma and eventually kill him. The footage, shaky and rough, is captured on a hand-held camcorder by a witness in the room. A representative from an organization called Compassion and Choices of Oregon tells the man that it’s not too late to back out. Then, she asks him to describe what will happen after he drinks the milky liquid in the glass. He answers, “I will die and I will finally be happy.” He gulps down the overdose, lies down, and slowly slips into a coma, singing a few lyrics from the folk song, Old Black Joe: “I’m coming. I’m coming. For my head is bending low.”

The scene borders on invasive and is almost excruciating to watch. Are there any more important or intensely personal events in a person’s life than his birth or death?
And this is just the first five minutes of the film.

Throughout the documentary, we meet several terminally ill Oregonians who are contemplating euthanasia. Each one buys the necessary dose of Seconal, prescribed by a physician, to keep in a drawer by the bed just in case. When we are introduced to Cody Curtis, an attractive, fifty-four-year-old wife and mother of two, we soon realize that we are going to follow her journey from prognosis to “just in case.” And it is heart wrenching.

This sophomore effort by Peter Richardson, a young director from Oregon, took four years and about $750,000 to make. Technically, the film resembles a classic documentary. The subject matter is too delicate, too personal, to take liberties with style. The pacing is swift, the narratives are gripping, and the only drawback to the film is the director’s obvious bias: No one interviewed for the film delivers a strong argument against physician-assisted suicide. However, How To Die in Oregon is sure to stir up controversy and conversation wherever it is shown. It will be an easy contender for best documentary at the 2012 Academy Awards.

For more reporting from Sundance 2011, see Jennifer’s blog: