Wednesday, May 25, 2011

How to Die in Oregon: A poignant documentary about life and death

How to Die in Oregon, A

Synopsis, as written by the Sundance Film Festival 2011 guide:

From its opening scene…it becomes shockingly clear that How to Die in Oregon is a special film. In 1994, Oregon became the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide. As a result, any individual whom two physicians diagnose as having less than six months to live can lawfully request a fatal dose of barbiturate to end his or her life. Since 1994, more than 500 Oregonians have taken their mortality into their own hands.
In How to Die in Oregon, filmmaker Peter Richardson…gently enters the lives of the terminally ill as they consider whether—and when—to end their lives by lethal overdose. Richardson examines both sides of this complex, emotionally charged issue. What emerges is a life-affirming, staggeringly powerful portrait of what it means to die with dignity.

How to Die in Oregon examines the Death with Dignity Act, a law that allows people who are medically declared six months from death the ability to have physician-assisted suicide. The law intends to allow patients to retain control of their lives, instead of fading away painfully and becoming nothing but a burden to those around them.


The film focuses on 54-year-old woman Cody Curtis, who is told she has only a few months to live as a result of liver cancer. The film seamlessly weaves all the smaller stories into Curtis’. While each story is both fascinating and heartbreaking, none captivate like Curtis’. Director Peter Richardson certainly recognized this, as he proves himself to be an expert documentarian.
Curtis, as well as each patient, is constantly faced with the questions “Do I want to live this way and do I want to be here tomorrow.” With both Cody’s and the others characters’ stories the film seems to support the law, although not always (with one powerful example that I will not spoil). I understand the topic may sound too difficult to expose yourself to but it’s not. At the end of Oregon I didn’t find myself depressed, but rather empowered by catharsis.

I experienced this catharsis because I was faced with these very same questions of life and death, even though I, like most viewers, was not in danger of dying. By making us ask these questions, the film dares us reach within ourselves to find value in our lives. People often look to a “God” or a place in society to find purpose, but Oregon shows us that being able to simply live is the blessing. Watching these human beings have conversations with their loved ones is profound each and every time because we can see that they know this could be the last time. While politics are discussed, How to Die in Oregon is clearly more of a deeply personal film.

What’s so very special however is that it doesn’t dive in headfirst; How to Die in Oregon gently takes you by the hands and helps you get to the other side.  Let this highly intelligent and poignant film give you the catharsis it gave me, let it bring you closer to peace with death.

How to Die in Oregon won the U.S. Documentary Competition Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2011. The film will be premiering through HBO Documentary Films at 8pm on Thursday May 26th. I expect it will show occasionally on HBO in the coming months and will be on HBO On Demand. Please check out the film's Facebook, Twitter and Official Website

You can contact me at or @BrandonIsaacson on Twitter.

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