How to Die in Oregon, winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Documentaries at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, first brings us inside the home of Robert Sagner, an elderly man who is ready for his life to end. Text on the screen tells us Sagner was the 343rd person to utilize the Oregon Death With Dignity Act. Through home footage we see Sagner in the presence of loved ones, not in a state of discomfort and uncertainty, but rather of calm euphoria. He takes the fluid mixture of medication and water, forewarned that it will taste disgusting, and chugs it down with ease. As he slips into the induced coma, Sagner speaks his last words to his loved ones and those watching through the camera — “It was easy, folks. It was easy.”
Sagner is the first of several people whose lives — or, in some cases here, deaths — we peer into, with the focus being on two women in particular. Cody Curtis of Oregon is a 54-year-old wife and mother of two with less than six months to live (which is the main requirement for approval to end one’s life under the Death With Dignity Act). Nancy Niedzielski of Seattle is the widow of a man who made her promise she would help pass the same law in Washington state. In response, Niedzielski dedicated approximately two years of her life to rally support for a version of Death With Dignity to be on the ballot during the 2008 election.
Curtis is who we become most attached to. Suffering from liver cancer, she purchases her lethal dose (the one mentioned most being a barbiturate with the brand name Seconal), but outlives her original diagnosis. From there, she and her family struggle as Curtis hangs in limbo, her health alternately improving and declining.
Though this documentary is more interested in the people dealing with end of life situations, director Peter Richardson opens the door for some politics to fine its way in. Richardson presents both sides of the story, though his take on those against physician-assisted suicide is flawed and lacking compared to the pro side. That would be find if this was a liberal polemic a la Outfoxed, but How to Die in Oregon aspires to be neutral, which it clearly isn’t.
For example, the only sick person presented who expresses disapproval is 54-year-old Randy Stroup. Dying from colon cancer, Stroup is disgusted that Oregon’s health care system initially denied him coverage for a second go around of chemotherapy, but was willing to pay for his “euthanasia” (as he calls it), in addition to other alternatives. (Stroup’s chemo was eventually approved after he took his story public.) Apart from Stroup, the argument against physician-assisted suicide is only advanced through glimpses of protesters and audio of talk radio callers.
But taking the film as a whole, Richardson does everything else right by not doing much at all. He understands that allowing these people to tell their stories will have the most impact on the viewer, and it does. How to Die in Oregon is a challenging film to watch. You can’t get any closer to life and death than by following people who are near the end, and hearing them explain their reasoning — one way or the other — on the decision to end their lives.
In thinking about the subject matter, I realized that however much of each side Richardson presents is irrelevant. It would be impossible for one movie to settle the debate over physician-assisted suicide, and as I sit here I’m still not sure whether I’m for or against it. It’s not a topic a person can really understand until they are faced with the same situation as the people shown in the movie. And that’s one situation I hope to never come across.
For a film as challenging and upsetting as this, How to Die in Oregon also has moments of optimism. As humans, it feels almost a responsibility to view something this real.