A ‘suicide tourist’ bids farewell

THESSALONIKI – Few people – at least in Europe – seem to believe in life after death these days. Craig Ewert had come to a point where he did not think much of life before death either. On a September morning in 2006 in a nondescript Zurich apartment, Craig, terminally ill with Lou Gehrig’s disease, swallowed a glass of sodium phenobarbital, then a sip of apple juice to kill the taste. Forty-five minutes later, with his wife Mary by his side, the 59-year-old former university professor died peacefully. Craig was what the local press disparagingly calls a «suicide tourist.» A disenchanted American who moved to the UK after George W. Bush climbed to power in the USA, Craig was one of the increasing number of terminally ill patients seeking help to, yes, end their lives. Many foreigners find such help in Switzerland, where assisted suicide has been legal since 1942. Dignitas, the non-profit group he turned to, extends this right to foreigners. John Zaritsky, the maker of «The Suicide Tourist,» being shown these days at the annual Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (the film will be screened Friday, March 14, at the Tonia Marketaki theater at 10.30 p.m.), has grappled with the contentious subject before. «Choosing Death,» shot in the Netherlands 15 years ago, was an examination of euthanasia as performed by doctors in the legendary tolerant country and medicine’s ability to sustain existence but not necessarily a life worth living. «Throughout my career, I have never returned to the same subject twice but I decided to make an exception with euthanasia as a result of the Terri Schiavo case,» says Zaritsky, speaking of the brain-damaged Florida woman at the center of a bitter right-to-die case between her husband and right-wing Christians as well as the Bush administration a few years ago. «Given the appalling reaction to the Schiavo case, I decided it was important to make another film,» he says. Of course, two or perhaps even 200 documentaries will not be enough to change general attitudes and public policy on the subject. It’s the «R» word. «I am not a religious person,» the Oscar-winning Canadian director says. «I believe that organized religion prevents society and governments from making social advances that the public clearly wants. This is certainly the case with euthanasia, which shows public support for the right to die consistently at 60 percent or more in nearly all Western countries.» Critics see a «slippery slope» whereby mercy killing degenerates into involuntary euthanasia, with elderly or sick people choosing to end their lives for fear of becoming a burden on their families. Nevertheless, laws permitting assisted suicide and/or voluntary euthanasia have also been passed over the past 15 years or so in Oregon in the USA, the Netherlands and Belgium. To be sure, controversy runs deep even in progressive and secular Switzerland, where Dignitas founder and lawyer Ludwig Minelli has notoriously been branded «Dr Death» by pro-life advocates who slam the purported practice of «legalized murder.» Since 1999, Dignitas has helped some 700 people from 25 countries to die. Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland as long as the assistant is not motivated by self-interest. Dignitas has helped people with incurable physical as well as mental illnesses to accelerate death, provided they hand in a medical report affirming that they met federal laws. Not all candidates do. In parallel to Craig’s case, the movie also follows the journey of George and Betty Coumbis, a Vancouver couple in their early 70s who want to end their lives together. George has a deteriorating heart condition but Betty is in perfect health yet simply does not want to face up to life without her beloved husband. Much to their disappointment, their request is turned down. For Zaritsky, the right to die is a natural human right. «I believe people should have the right to die and that right should be extended to anyone of sound mind who has expressed their wish to die.» He thinks there should also be consideration for the medically incompetent – those who would wish to die but can no longer communicate their wish to do so. «Even the comatose or mentally ill should have that right if they have expressed their wishes and instructions prior to getting into those states,» he explains. The greatest difficulty the project faced was finding somebody who was willing to have their assisted suicide filmed, the director says. The crew waited for over a year and, during that time, they rejected for various reasons a number of people who had been willing to participate. But they were also rejected by a number of people they wanted to take part in the film. When you are about to die, the last thing you may want is a stranger holding a camera right in your face while a boom looms over your head. «The reason that Craig was an ideal film subject is that he deeply believed in the cause and therefore wasn’t bothered by the cameras, but in fact welcomed the opportunity to speak out publicly for the last cause of his life,» Zaritsky says. And so he does, his lucid and disquieting monologues show that the disease has paralyzed his body but not his mind. «It’s OK to play God in order to save a premature baby or make a transplant, but not to eliminate suffering,» the ailing Craig tells the camera in a calm, broken voice. But he was not alone in this. Mary, his heartrendingly supportive wife of 38 years, also said that she found that the filming was a very therapeutic experience for both her and her husband, Zaritsky adds. The film shows Mary dealing with logistical details to keep herself together. It’s easy to understand that the difficulties were not solely of technical nature. Filming a man in death – Craig controversially dies on camera – took a huge emotional toll on everyone involved. «I was deeply affected by the experience afterward and continue to have flashbacks, especially on the first anniversary of Craig’s death,» Zaritsky admits. Hours before drinking the fatal drug, Craig expressed the wish that in the future people like him will be able to die at home and not become «suicide tourists.» But can a documentary help his last wish materialize? Can a documentary affect wider audiences? The truth is that festivals tend to draw a more liberal crowd, thus the political impact is limited. Zaritsky agrees but sees the glass half-full. «I think that at festivals we are indeed preaching to the converted,» he says. «But once they are broadcast on television, documentaries reach large general audiences who are of all political stripes.» «I have death and I have a suffering death,» the wheelchair-bound Craig says before setting off on his final trip. You don’t have to hate Bush to take your pick here. [email protected]

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