How to Die in Oregon

Winner Grand Jury Prize (U. S. Documentary Competition), 2011 Sundance Film Festival

Director's Statement

Death, and how we die, is likely to be the next major medical/ethical issue we confront as a nation.  An aging baby boomer population that will desire greater control and choice in end of life decisions is going to put a microscope on every aspect of how we die in this country.  In Oregon, where physician aid-in-dying is legal, the question of how we die, how to die, is uniquely complex.  If you are one of the approximately 60-70 terminally ill people in Oregon who use Death with Dignity every year, how do you know when it's time?  What do you do with the time you have left?  How do you say goodbye to your family and friends?

What inspired me to make 'How to Die in Oregon' was the desire to explore the profound questions the law asks of those who might use it, and in that exploration find a way to talk about the larger subject of death and dying today.

Physician aid-in-dying is a highly controversial practice that comes with a long history.  In making the film I met with many who found it offered great comfort and control as they faced the end of their lives.  Yet I also encountered individuals who were negatively impacted by the law and expressed concern over how societal definitions of what life is "worth living" and what life is not worth living might impact them.  How do we protect the rights of the poor, disadvantaged and vulnerable while at the same time offering others the choice of aid-in-dying?  How do we ensure, in a time of limited medical resources and ballooning costs of end-of-life care, that the rights of all are protected?

Though 'How to Die in Oregon' asks these larger questions, at its heart it is a deeply personal and intimate portrait of individual experiences and choices. It was my desire to explore the personal realm that first inspired me to make the film, and it is the multitude of ways in which individual lives have touched and changed me over the course of making the film that I continue to reflect on now that it is complete.

Most places in the world do not have laws like Oregon's, and many never will.  Yet having a Death with Dignity law is not a pre-condition to engaging in deep and meaningful conversations about dying. Tragedy seems to happen when choices are not made, when a dying person's wishes are not known by their family and physician or worse, not honored.  I hope that by telling the stories of a few Oregonians who faced the choice of whether, and when, to end their lives under Oregon's law, the film helps start a new dialogue on how we die.

I was 27 when I started filming 'How to Die in Oregon.'  I'm frequently asked how making the film has affected me, and my views on death.  Surprisingly, I've found that the lessons I've learned over the last four years have more to do with living than dying.  I hope that the film is infused with those lessons.  Though How to Die in Oregon is ostensibly a film about death and dying, it is also a life-affirming film about people who understand the meaning of their own lives and who have to make very hard decisions about when life becomes not worth living for them.

Peter D. Richardson, Director/Producer

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