HBO Documentary Films
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Perri Peltz, Matthew O’Neill
Screenwriter: Perri Peltz, Matthew O’Neill
Cast: Leila Johnson, Guadalupe Cuevas, Barbara Jean, Sara Snider Green, Dick Shannon, Emily and Ryan Matthias
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/12/19
Opens: August 14, 2019

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who ironically died before the age of forty, is best known for a poem that begins like this:

“Do not go gentle into that good night/ Old age should burn and rave at close of day/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

One might presume that the majority of people want to live as long as they can, some terminal patients demanding that hospitals do everything they can regardless of their pain. Most tragic are people with ALS virtually paralyzed and looking toward an end by suffocation but barely considering a voluntary ending their own lives. All of these people rage against the dying of the light. The six families highlighted in Perri Peltz and Matthew O’Neill’s stunning HBO documentary shed tears for the people they are about to miss and who, of course, are destined to miss them as well. Yet all had original ways of dealing with mortality.

Although in 2018 cremations are now more common in the U.S. than burials, notwithstanding the opposition of the Catholic Church and Jewish rabbis, there is nothing common about the way families of six people dealt the end. On my terms” is the theme of each whether five years old or eighty, and this is to the good. Right now only six states and DC have legislation on the books that allow people, usually with six months or fewer to live, to end their own lives with mixtures set up in the regulations—regulation which are strange when you consider how many people have OD’d from opiates which they were able to get on their own. So let’s see what so unusual about the people here, all of whom are now passed away in a film that must have taken years to make.

Leila Johnson allowed her departed father to contribute to nature, to life, really, by placing his cremains in a coral reef. According to officials at the Memorial Reef International, corals are dying, and this kind of burial can create new environments for life. An understanding of this is beyond my pay grade so I connected with Wikipedia and found this:
Now I see the reasons for the demise of corals but not exactly how burying cremains, which Leila mixes with cement, can create new structures for ocean life.

Texan Guadalupe Cuevas give their beloved father, ill with terminal cancer and renal failure, a wake, but Guadalupe is still alive. He and his large family are entertained by a mariachi band and the whole family enjoy the music with the food, which suits Guadalupe just fine.

Afflicted with pancreatic cancer, one of the most deadly forms of the dread disease, Barbara Jean does not want to be pushing up daisies while six feet under. Instead she heads to Eloise Woods Back to Nature Burials, selects a plot, and plans for a shallow burial. She even gets a promise from her best friend to wash her body after death. When she dies her body is wrapped in a cloth and laid to rest in a shallow grave next to a tree which her friends plant.

Sara Snider Green has the most unusual burial—in space—which must have cost a pretty penny but led to great joy by a boatload of friends and family. “Tuna,” who loved space travel as much as Leila Johnson’s dad cherished the ocean, had his cremains sent into space which NASA graciously allowed as a secondary payload for its latest ventures into the beyond.

Dick Shannon, afflicted with terminal cancer, his lungs failing, speaks to the camera about his venture with MAID (medical aid in dying). His doctor gives Dick a lethal drug cocktail, four bottles that require mixing, with the injunction that while others can help with the mix, he must drink the cocktail himself. He has a last supper, so to speak, with his family, calmly announcing that he will drink the lethal dose the next morning. We watch him down the liquid, lie on the couch, and within minutes snore and cease breathing.

In the least developed scenario, Emily and Ryan Matthias, who have the terrible misfortune of dealing with a five-year-old’s terminal cancer, explain to the boy about death to the extent that such a child can understand. He does realize what it’s all about when he asks for a party in lieu of a funeral, so his parents, determined to honor their promise, hold a celebration of life, a blast filled with kids eating snow cones, having a ball, and even Batman, the boy’s hero, is in attendance.

The locations include Van Meter, Iowa; Sierra County, New Mexico; Austin, Texas; San Antonio, Texas, and the Gulf of Mexico. The film honors the wishes of those about to depart from the living, and while some viewers might be dismayed by all the talk about death and have nightmares about it, the more likely scenario is that we will appreciate the New Age idea that death is merely a part of life and nothing to fear.

67 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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