Assisted suicide gets clinical yet thought-provoking treatment

Exit: The Right To Die

on August 01, 2008 by Ray Greene
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An unsensationalized but fervent advocacy piece, EXIT: The Right to Die plays like a documentary from a parallel universe. Filmed in Switzerland, the only country on earth that allows assisted suicide for the incurably ill, EXIT tracks a group of volunteer “escorts” from the Swiss “right to die” organization EXIT as they prepare terminally ill and/or gravely handicapped clients for “self-deliverance” from their sufferings via barbiturate overdose.

What makes the film oddly riveting is its blase tone. The unpaid “right to die” advocates chronicled here aren't wild-eyed messianic types in the Jack Kevorkian mode but simple middle-class women and men who have volunteered for a difficult calling. The Swiss culture they operate in accepts what they do in an almost matter-of-fact fashion rather than slotting it into a shrill “culture of death”/“right to die” dialectic like the one that colored the Terry Schiavo case in the U.S. Shorn of an overt right/left ideological context, EXIT: The Right to Die presents a measured but often nonetheless disquieting model for how a legalized “right to die” operation might function elsewhere: with quietly lethal professionalism, as a sort of a ASPCA for suffering humans who ask to be put down.

EXIT euthanizes its own members, and duration of membership is a factor in qualifying for “service.” The processes the organization follows are thorough and logical: We overhear often heartbreaking phone conversations to their hotline, in which the suicidal are politely but firmly rebuffed; great pains are taken to make sure the seriousness and finality of “self deliverance” are presented; and that nothing is done to encourage a qualified patient toward suicide. The film doesn't flinch from the full ramifications of what it depicts, opening with a woman making the decision to end her life and closing with a detailed sequence showing her assisted death.

If there is a serious flaw in this thought-provoking film, it lies in director Fernand Melgar's decision to offer only severely limited access to both the “escorts” and their patients, except within the context of the bureaucratic process that brings them together. The EXIT organization is the sole focus of this film, and so Melgar stays almost exclusively within its public activities. The problem is that EXIT's public actions are so extraordinary it becomes impossible to fully understand them without getting inside the very private heads of the people who participate in them. Have they lost loved ones to disease? Is their decision to “escort” others moral? Political? Emotional? Philosophical? While there are suggestions that EXIT volunteers sometimes buckle under the strain of assisting “self deliverances,” Melgar is too discrete to address individual motives, and his film is less rich both humanly and dramatically as a result.

What EXIT: The Right to Die does accomplish, though, is a clear-eyed presentation of a unique and already operating alternative system for allowing suffering women and men to put an end to their pain. If the film's lack of emotionalism deprives it of dramatic energy, it also forces viewers to react to a highly charged issue intellectually and on the merits, rather than out of manipulated passion. Given the cant and posturing that has surrounded the entire “dignity of death” discussion in places like the U.S., EXIT: The Right to Die speaks all the more powerfully because it uses a hushed and quiet tone. Distributor: First Run/Icarus
Director: Fernand Melgar
Producers: Fernand Melgar, Jean-Marc Henchoz and Matthieu Henchoz
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 75 min.
Release date: October 25 NY

Tags: First Run/Icarus, Fernand Melgar, Jean-Marc Henchoz, Matthieu Henchoz, Documentary, unique, suffering, charged, passion
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