By Sean Willett
It would be an understatement to say that talking frankly about death is a taboo in our culture, and this taboo is part of what makes Peter Richardson’s How to Die in Oregon both disturbing and powerful.
The documentary, the first in NUTV’s series of monthly documentary screenings entitled “Movies that Matter,” focuses on the state of Oregon’s controversial Death with Dignity Act of 1994. This law was passed to allow people with less than three months to live to request a physician-assisted death. Richardson, a native Oregonian himself, wisely chose to shift the focus away from the liberal versus conservative debate that has dominated this issue and point it towards the people who are actually faced with this difficult choice. In doing so, he has managed to create a simple yet intensely emotional film that explores the personal side of this controversial subject.
How to Die in Oregon spends almost all of its time with people who have made the decision either to accept or reject a physician-assisted death. These scenes are difficult to watch as they unflinchingly show the situations these individuals have found themselves in and the lengths they are willing to go to escape them. Richardson was careful to choose people with varying attitudes and backgrounds to reflect the complexity of this issue while avoiding any sort of significant bias, although it does feel like more screen time should have been devoted to those who chose to continue living.
The film does take a dip into the political side in scenes that document the effort to bring the Death with Dignity Act to Washington state. Even these scenes are quite personal, for they focus on a woman who promised her dying husband to help ensure that the law is passed, there is still an effort made in these scenes to show both sides of this debate. After spending so much time with the people who are actually making the decision to end their lives, the opposing arguments come off as rather petty. How to Die in Oregon shows that what really matters is the choice of the sick individual, not that of the voting public when it comes to the issue of physician-assisted suicide.
You will be unfulfilled if you go into this film expecting for your opinions to be solidified on one side of this contentious issue. Like any thoughtful documentary, How to Die in Oregon will leave you with more questions than it does answers, and even those who think they know where they stand will find themselves unsure of their beliefs. If you feel like you can handle some rather upsetting scenes and don’t mind shedding a few tears, I strongly recommend giving How to Die in Oregon a watch.