Choosing Death

Impressions from the World Film Festival Montréal 2012
An interesting phenomenon emerging in a number of films shown at the Montreal Festival of World Films this year is a focus on death as a natural and acceptable part of life, rather than on death as the feared enemy of life. Three films in particular stood out. 
Anfang 80 (Coming of Age) directed by Sabine Hiebler and Gerhard Ertl (Austria 2011) was selected for the world competition.  Not incidentally, its 81 year old protagonist received the festival's "Best Actor" award. The story proceeds by quickly making a main point:  80 year old Rosa is left forgotten in front of the X-Ray machine in a hospital -- forgotten and invisible, as is often the case with the elderly.  To her "Can I go now?" the nurse with a start remembers her and releases her, where upon Rosa gives her a good slap in the face:  "There. Now you'll remember me," she says, and leaves. Later in the film, Rosa says that most younger people regard older people as dead folks whose legs still work. The elderly are too often ignored, discounted, or barely tolerated by the younger generations.
     The film makes clear that to age does not mean to lose all the feelings, passions, and characteristics formed through one's lifetime. Indeed, to some degree these are intensified by the very awareness of the passage of one's time towards death.  In Rosa's case, she refuses to be institutionalized because of her terminal illness, even though her cancer diagnosis gives her but six more months of life.  When Rosa goes home from the hospital, it is only to find that her niece has released her apartment, assuming Rosa will be institutionalized for her final months.   On the sidewalk outside her former home, Rosa meets Bruno, who stops to help her.  "I'll just have to think of something new," says Rosa when asked what she will do now. 
    Bruno is intrigued by Rosa and her notion of "something new," even in the face of illness and death.  He tries to invigorate his own 50+ years of marriage by suggesting that he and his wife do something new--remodeling?  Traveling?  But it is difficult to dig one's way out of a rut so deeply woven. By chance he meets Rosa again; they go for coffee and conversation; they fall in love. Bruno leaves home to live with Rosa in an apartment.
    Meanwhile, Bruno's actions cause consternation and anger in his adult children; his son has him declared incompetent.  A critical scene in the film has Bruno meeting with a psychiatrist appointed by the court to determine incompetency.  Because we are old, says Bruno, we are not taken seriously.  But we, too, can fall in love; we, too, can experience passion and physical fulfillment; we, too, care deeply and passionately.  And because we are so fully human, we are declared incompetent?  The psychiatrist hears him, and the incompetency ruling is overturned.  
    Relative to issues of death, Rosa has asked Bruno to help her when the pain from her cancer becomes unbearable, and he has promised.  The film takes us through the joy of their time together to the issues raised as Rosa's health steadily deteriorates, to the final scene of her death.  But in no way does the film suggest that the death is tragic.  Rather, it is part and parcel of what it is to be human, an acceptable part of life itself, even with the grief naturally attendant upon loss.
Differing responses to death
De Goede Dood (The Good Death) by Wannie de Wijn comes to us from the Netherlands, where assisted suicide is a legal option.  We are given the last 24 hours of Bernhard's life; he is suffering from terminal lung cancer, and has asked his good friend, a physician, to help him end his life. His two younger brothers, his lover, and his daughter all spend these hours with him, and we are shown their respective responses to Bernhard's impending death.
     In contrast to Anfang 80, the film does not focus on aging, but on death itself. We are shown differing responses to death, and through these responses, to the complications entailed by death. Bernhard's next youngest brother Michael is a businessman, whose reaction to Bernhard's intention to hasten his death is almost frantic. He alternates between attempting to stop the assisted suicide, and worrying about the will and what he will gain or lose from it.  Ruben, the youngest brother, is autistic and in some respects childlike.  Music is his fundamental vehicle for expressing his own fears about losing someone so essential to his own emotional well being.  When others attempt to protect Ruben by having him elsewhere when the lethal injection is given, he adamantly protests.  Whatever the cost, he will participate in his brother's final moments.  
      Bernhard's lover (or perhaps now his wife) is the ex-wife of Michael--certainly a complicating factor in this end-of-life scenario. She and Sammy, the daughter, are emotionally close to Bernhard, and each wrestles with the impending loss in her own way, but both respect Bernhard's wish.  Robert, the physician, makes it plain to all that inevitably the next phase of Bernhard's cancer will be the prolonged pain of drowning from the liquid in his lungs.   It is not a question of whether the cancer will kill him, but of when, and of how much pain Bernhard should endure.   Even so, administering the relieving dose to his friend instead of to one who is simply a professional responsibility has its own cost; it is hard to participate in the loss of a dear friend, for whatever good reasons.  
     We the viewer become the sixth person present.  How do we feel about assisted suicide?  Is it better than unrelievable pain?  Is it better to die when one still has one's faculties and the capacity to make such decisions, or to wait for the cancer to take its devastating toll?  For the sake of those, like Ruben, who depend emotionally on the continued presence of the ill person in their lives, should death be delayed as long as possible?  Bernhard himself is clear about his answer:  he has lived his life long and well, and he will help his body complete the process of living and dying.  Postponing the  moment of loss by several months will not save one's survivors from the loss which they must inevitably experience.  We in the audience who watch can empathize with all viewpoints in the film; leaving the film, we continue to live with the questions concerning Bernhard's 
Honouring life and death
Top of the Hill People, directed by Wanfeng Han (China 2011)  takes us to a quite different culture-- the Qiang people of rural China.  They live in the Sichuan province, where a deadly earthquake took 68,000 lives in 2008; these people are no strangers to death.  The story is set several years later; rebuilding is still in process, and village life at the top of the mountain continues much as it has for centuries, even though the people have many interactions with the people, schools, and shops in the town that is further down the mountain. Transportation between village and town is an arduous trek on foot.  
     The religion and rituals of the people hark back to a pivotal event several centuries earlier:  a mighty general saved the people from a military threat that would have plunged them into exile and slavery. The event was so traumatic that in ensuing generations it evolved into stories giving the people their meaning.  Ritualized dances, with the people in their finest and most colorful dress, celebrate the freedom of their life together.
     Within this colorful scenery, we are introduced to the focal point of the story: a 70 year old woman's decision to die.  She is weak and ill, but not in the debilitating way we have seen in the other two films.  Widowed, her devoted son and her friends and neighbors care for her.  Clearly she is well-loved, a highly valued member of this close-knit community.  A legend had emerged in the culture that to be summoned to death by the general is a great honor; those so summoned were interred in a revered part of the land at the very top of the mountain. Our protagonist has a dream, where first she sees her dead husband, and then, close behind him, the general.  The general calls her, and takes her into a wooded place, and the dream fades. On awakening, the woman marvels at the honor done to her. Sharing the dream with an elder in the village, he appreciates the honor, and tells her she will be buried at the top of the hill.
     And so the woman prepares for her death.  She visits each neighbor to say goodbye; she gives gifts.  Most importantly, she asks her son to take her down the mountain to a distant prison, where her other son has been incarcerated for criminal activity.  Throughout his incarceration, she has been receiving weekly letters from him; she treasures these letters, brought to her by her other son.
     Meanwhile, of course, there are complications within the story--problems of trauma still endured from the earthquake, problems of relationships, problems of employment.  We see scenes of these daily issues interspersed with scenes of the woman as she prepares for her death.  Finally, her son puts her onto his back to take her to the prison for one last visit with her other son.  He carries her down the mountain, and by bus and by foot they journey to the prison--only to be denied entry. And so they begin the long journey back.  Along the way, the woman tells her son that she knows it is he, not her imprisoned son, who writes her the weekly letters--but they mean as much, because she knows her two sons well.
     In the process of her preparation for death, the woman has been a catalyst for resolving several of the problematic issues presented in the lives of villagers and townspeople.  Even though her final act of attempting to see her other son results in failure, she accepts the failure--the attempt itself was enough.  As her son carries her on his back up the mountain to the village, she dies.  And of course she is buried at the top of the hill, full of honor.
     This film, more than the other two, suggests a seamlessness to life, a continuity that has its natural phases of youth giving way to a long period of one's life's work, giving way to one's role as an elder, and then death as the completion of life. This natural cycle of life is contrasted with the more traumatic experience of lives interrupted by the earthquake, creating havoc in the lives of the survivors.  It is as if life itself is ideally like a fine piece of fabric, moving beautifully from beginning to end; early death rips the fabric, leaving ends that must be rewoven with difficulty into the whole in the ongoing life of the community.  But it is the work of the community, particularly those whose lives reflect the wholeness of the fabric, to do this work of weaving.
     Three films, offering three depictions of death chosen as the completion of life.  These were certainly not the only films among the more than four hundred films screened in Montreal this year. Within the eighteen competition films alone, there is death enough:  Invasion (Germany-Austria, dir. Tito Tsintsadze), Flower Square (Cvjeni Trg, Croatia, dir. Krsto Papic) The Wild Ones (Els Nens Salvatges, Spain, dir Patricia Ferreira), Orange Honey (Miel de Naranjas, Spain, dir. Imanol Uribe), Bad Seeds (Comme Un Homme, France, dir. Safy Nebou), The Innocence of Clara (L'Innocenza di Clara, Italy, dir. Toni D'Angelo), Manhunt (Oblawa, Poland, dir. Marcin Krzysztalowicz), Expiation (Iskupleniye, Russia, dir. Alexander Proshkin), The Last Sentence (Dom Oever Doed Man, Sweden, Jan Troell), and Where the Fire Burns (Atesin Duestuegue Yer, Turkey, dir. Ismail Gunes):  All dealt with death -- not death occurring naturally as the end of life, but violent death inflicted by gunfire or poison. In these films, death is indeed chosen--but the deaths of others, not the death of oneself.  In contrast, the competition film Anfang 80 and the other two I have lifted up are radical alternatives.  Natural death is a part of life; as such, one can accept it and sometimes faithfully assist it. Perhaps it is the case that as the population as a whole ages with the longer life spans now possible, film makers (themselves aging) begin to consider the phenomenon of death occurring naturally and positively, life's final transition.