Sundance finale: Love & Death prevails — along with Ronald Reagan
As the theatre lights dimmed on the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, the independent film community is excited because more than 25 movies shown have been acquired for distribution by movie or TV studios — more than twice the number sold last year. Like Crazy, a romance directed by Drake Doremus (and purchased by Paramount Pictures and Indian Paintbrush), won the grand jury prize for an American dramatic film, and Peter Richardson’s How to Die in Oregon, a sympathetic look at assisted suicide, won the grand jury prize for an American documentary and has been purchased by HBO.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. We spent our last weekend in Park City catching one highly acclaimed documentary and two documentaries that I had been putting off, steeling myself for guaranteed tearjerkers.
How to Die in Oregon directed by Peter Richardson (Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon, screened at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival) examines Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act that allows individuals with terminal diseases and less than six months to live to end their life with a physician-prescribed sedative. More than 500 people have chosen to end their lives since the law passed in 1994.
The film opens with an elderly man suffering from terminal cancer drinking liquid Seconal, which puts him in a coma and leads to his death within 90 seconds, all of which is shown on screen. The audience knew this would be what we were going to get with this film but still, the sniffles were audible throughout the film. It focuses on 54-year-old Cody Curtis, a dynamic, charismatic mother with terminal liver cancer and Nancy, a widow who is on a mission to fulfill her dead husband’s final request that euthanasia be legalized in their home state of Washington.
The audience goes through the roller coaster of emotions as Curtis lives beyond her six month life expectancy and starts to resume a normal life only to have the cancer return with a vengeance. She has both times of normalcy, where the audience is rooting for her, and excruciating pain before finally choosing to end her life.
The ending of the film — spoiler alert — documents her death from outside her house looking in the window. The viewer can’t see Curtis but the room is wired for sound, so her last words “I didn’t realize it would be this easy” are heard, along with audible relief in her voice from being out of pain.
Whether you agree with the idea of physician-assisted suicide or not, this is an important though hard-to-watch film, more so as baby boomers become senior citizens. Indeed, Montana and Vermont will consider physician assisted suicide in the next year
Director Richardson worked on the film for four years and said that it only came together when Curtis’ physician agreed to be filmed on camera, something most doctors avoid for fear of backlash.
Although there were tears and a respectful silence at the end of the movie rather than raucous cheers, no one left the Q&A session afterward. Unlike many more hardened directors, Richardson relished the question and answer session and when time was called, offered to continue the discussion in the lobby.
Rebirth, directed by Jim Whitaker, a former executive at Imagine Entertainment, follows five individuals profoundly affected by the 9-11 attacks over a decade as they move from unspeakable grief to healing. His subjects include a student whose mother perished, the fiance of a first responder, a woman who escaped the 78th floor of the World Trade Center and experienced disfiguring burns, a man who oversees Ground Zero construction, and a firefighter who lost his closest friends.
It also features amazing cineamatography from Ground Zero — 14 time-lapse cameras chart the entire multi-year rebuilding of 7 World Trade Center, the first structure to rise to completion after the tragedy. The rebuilding of the buildings is also a metaphor for the rebuilding of the lives of the subjects.
The director interviews each of the five subjects yearly following 9-11. We watch the fiancé grieving her loss and aching for intimacy, the student disowning his father who marries after 14 months, the construction manager suffering marital problems due to post traumatic stress, and the survivor who wonders if she will ever be free of pain. The movie builds in suspense as the audience wonders if the following year will bring peace and healing.
During the Q&A, Whitaker said that the idea of the film came to him after he visited Ground Zero. He had recently lost his mother and in a “light bulb” moment, decided that he wanted to document grief.
While the film is emotional and is sure to evoke tears, the tears shed at the end will likely be tears of hope — of humanity’s innate ability to survive and to heal — hysically, emotionally and spiritually. The movie, which is part of a nonprofit project called Project Rebirth, will be included in a permanent exhibit at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, where it will be shown with material on other victims that Whitaker wasn't able to include in the film. No television of theatrical buyer has picked up rights yet.
My final movie of the festival, was Reagan, director Eugene Jarecki's portrait of Ronald Reagan. It debuts on HBO Feb. 7, one day after Reagan’s 100th birthday. Jarecki not only tries to understand our 40th president but also to understand the “idea” of him. He opens the film with current political leaders vying for votes, out-yelling each other with “Ronald Reagan believed…..”
Jarecki’s documentary seeks to be apolitical if that is possible in a film about a politician, and includes interviews with former cabinet members, political allies, his biographer and impressive film footage beginning in his college years. Perhaps his most illuminating interview subject is son Ron Reagan, who neither idolizes his father nor demonizes him and provides a sympathetic and balanced view.
The film, which is a long 110 minutes, shares little known facts about Reagan that might make the current party stalwarts blanche: Reagan expanded the size of government, encouraged massive budget deficits, and granted amnesty to over two million illegal immigrants.
The film does not gloss over the Iran contra affair, in which his cabinet advises him that the action he was contemplating and eventually took was criminal and impeachable, nor his trickle-down economics, which leads to both massive deficits and the transfer of wealth from middle America to the wealthiest.
In the Q&A, director Jarecki said that it was important to understand that the myth of Ronald Reagan is a trillion dollar industry and that there is significant disagreement—even between his two sons-- on what it means to be a Reagan Republican. Jarecki said that it was not hard to get Ron Reagan to talk on camera, though he ruled out filming in his father’s home town of Dixon, Ill., as “too contrived”. Instead they filmed at a swimming pool in Ron Reagan’s home town of Seattle.
Jarecki was asked if there was any interview that he wanted but was unable to get. “Former President Jimmy Carter, Gorbachav and Nancy Reagan” he answered without hesitation. Carter and Gorbachav said yes but production deadlines made it impossible.
Ron Reagan said his mother would agree if asked but also felt that the filming commitment would be too demanding of her and that she might not add anything new. The Sundance audience, which included both Democrats and Republicans, liked the film — both sides commenting to the director that they learned something new — which is the point of a good documentary.