Under Review: ‘How to Die in Oregon’


Her beautiful thin face is surrounded by rich silver-gray hair. Her skin is smooth and tan. She has a radiating vulnerable movie star smile. People tell her how beautiful she is now. But she responds that people just say that because she’s so thin. She criticizes society for finding thin so attractive. Then she quips, “I’m on the cancer diet.”

This is Cody Curtis and she has allowed Peter Richardson to chronicle her decision to take her own life.

Cody has a cadre of supportive best friends, two loving children in their 20’s, a devoted husband and a remarkable medical team at the Oregon Health Sciences University and Hospital in Portland, Ore.

She is beautiful, intelligent, a talented cook and 54 years old. She has cancer of the bile duct.

Intertwined with her story are the stories of several other terminally ill patients who feel varying degrees of helplessness, depression and humiliation as their physical selves degenerate. However, their one redeeming last avenue of control over their lives lies in a drawer – a vial of Seconol.

“How to Die in Oregon” opens with the following information.

“In 1994 Oregon became the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide. At the time, only Belgium, Switzerland, and the Netherlands had legalized the practice. Since enactment more than 500 Oregonians have used the law.”

Randy Niedzielski, a Seattle area resident, was diagnosed too late in his brain and spinal cancer to be able to establish residency in Oregon in order to take advantage of the doctor-assisted suicide law there, so he had to endure his gradual disintegration. He begged his wife for one last promise – to help support a similar law in Washington State.

Artfully coinciding with Cody’s story, the camera (with genius editing) also follows Nancy Niedzielski who campaigns in Washington State for passage of the Death with Dignity measure, a law similar to Oregon’s.

Most documentaries glorify one side of the issue, but through focusing on this campaign Richardson is able to showcase the opposition’s case against Washington’s Death with Dignity initiative.

The moral/ethical dilemmas of this movement, sure to sweep across America, includes the worry that medical insurance companies will end up preferring to fund life-ending drugs as opposed to life-extending procedures.

Protestors to the measure are interviewed. A doctor, a church representative and someone suffering from terminal cancer all speak out against the Death with Dignity measure. Their arguments are powerful and are paraphrased as follows.

    Life is sacred and no one has the right to usurp the role of God in ending it.

    Everything is for a reason, and we must figure out what the reason is.

    No one should abandon a loved one.

    Voting for this measure could tempt some members of society, including

    inheritance-hungry relatives and exhausted family care-givers, to disregard

    the dying by not only supporting but even encouraging pre-mature death.

Though “How to Die in Oregon” is filmed over a period of four years through an objective, matter-of-fact lens, the audience is profoundly affected. That some people experience a gruesome, painful, physically debilitating death doesn’t seem fair. That we witness individuals taking life-ending medicine is heart-stopping.

Oregon and Washington laws require that the patient be able to be functional and cognizant enough to answer a couple questions and self-administer the lethal medicine.

A gentle rendition of “In My Time of Dying,” performed by Tom Brosseau with Angela Correa, wisps in and out of the film:

    In my time of dying, want nobody to mourn
    All I want for you to do is take my body home
    Well, well, well, so I can die easy

“How to Die in Oregon” was the winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for best U.S. documentary. It was also the first advance ticket sell-out at the 34th Annual Portland International Film Festival. The last screenings at PIFF will be on Feb. 20 and 21.

Director, producer and cinematographer: Peter D. Richardson
Associate producer: Sophie Harris
Editors: Greg Snider and Peter D. Richardson
Music: Max Richter
Cast: Cody Curtis, The Curtis Family, Nancy Niedzielski, Dr. Katherine Morris, Ray Carnay, Randy Stroup, Gordon Green, Roger Sagner, Derek Humphry, Sue Porter, Linda Jensen
Running time: 107 minutes
Portland International Film Festival:

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