The opening five minutes of End of Life confuses in the way proclaiming, «A brick wall may not be higher than three feet!» would confuse a potential mugger in a dark alleyway, namely, you don’t really have a clue what is going on.
John Bruce and Pawel Wojtasik’s film is billed as the product of the four years they spent with five people who were at various stages of the dying process. We are told the filmmakers trained to be end-of-life doulas (people who assist the dying in their transition from life to death) and documented hundreds of hours of interactions with their subjects.
But the black screen and weird dialogue about artistic concepts and cartoon strips, throws viewers what seems, at first, to be a red herring. We breach black to see a scene of an ocean stretching out to infinity as the film begins to move with greater clarity into its subject matter.
It’s a slow process.
Head and heart. A pan of a beautiful beachfront property cuts to a close-up on its occupant: a wheelchair-bound elderly man, wasted legs sitting limply in the chair, a freckling of melanin spots scattered across his bald pate. He looks squarely into the camera and seems to be about to say something. He pauses for a drink. He begins to speak but trails off, looking down.
The End of Life seems to be painfully slow and full of regret.
Finally the man speaks: «In our culture almost everybody is afraid of dying.»
Suddenly the familiarity of his features becomes clear: it is Ram Dass – the Harvard University researcher who, in the 1960’s, became famous for experimenting with LSD. Back then he was known as Dr. Richard Alpert before taking the name Ram Dass and becoming a guru of enlightenment.
«A strange sensation of intimacy with a person most likely already dead by the time you watch this film.»
He continues: «I think that is the result of perceiving our lives from up here [touching his forehead], from our egos. The ego is one of the selves that we have: this one [touching his head], and this one [touching his heart].»
Thus the scene is set for encounters with the dying and the ground on which they must negotiate the end of life.
Alive and dying. For those assisting the dying, patience is a key skill. Perhaps that is why we are drawn into End of Life in such an oblique way. The conversation with an articulate and intelligent elderly woman about elephants and horses at her weddings («I didn’t have an elephant or a horse at any of my weddings. Just photographers…»), her words coming with a smile from a body that is gradually shrinking back to eternity, requires patient viewing.
The strange sensation of intimacy with a person most likely already dead by the time you watch the film is part of the charm of End of Life. The «old lady», as she refers to herself when talking about some children who came to visit her, switches between references to famous people who came to one of her weddings (the American singers Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger), a fantasy about President Obama shaking her hand on his inauguration day, and the names of her two dogs (one of which is called Patti Smith) who she earnestly hopes are snuggled quietly beneath her bed. Her interlocutor (presumably one of our doulas), a comforting off-screen presence, conspires with her. That she is so evidently alert and alive – and at the same time dying – is terribly poignant and something which many of us who have tended dying parents, grandparents, or others close to us know too well.
With segues into explorations of radiation therapy for oral cancer and plenty of shots of the modern medicalization of dying, this is not an easy film to watch. And yet, there is a comforting poetry to its inexorable logic. This is where we are all headed, and becoming more familiar with it and less afraid can only help our passage when the time comes.
Body and soul. The soundtrack and POV shots help with that familiarity. One woman recounts the extra 10 years of life she gained by fighting a malignant stomach cancer, remarking it was “gravy all the way” up until they told her there were no options left. And she does not want to be pitied: when she is dead, tell it how it is, not with the euphemistic “passed away”. The background of beeping hospital monitors and oxygen pumps is part of the atmosphere, the demystification of the death process.
«This is not an easy film to watch, and yet there is a comforting poetry to its inexorable logic.»
There is poignancy to the scene where dialogue goes unheard against the background chatter of a TV as the doula massages moisturizer into the skin of a bed-bound woman. An intimacy that demonstrates the deep power of simple caring; the simple act of touch and closeness.
There is humour here too: the cancer patient who says doing her makeup is so much easier and quicker now that she barely has eyebrows, only to be asked by the filmmakers to do her makeup routine again for the cameras since it is so quick. «I’m going to kill you both!» she says in mock indignation, before reciting from memory a passage on the power of mercy from The Merchant of Venice.
«Becoming more familiar with it and less afraid can only help our passage when the time comes.»
And then again a return to gentle philosophy: when we are back with Ram Dass in his ocean-side home. The background sound is now sweet birdsong rather than hospital monitors as he speaks: «The body is clothing for this incarnation. And when you are finished with the incarnation, you drop the body. Who are you? The soul. The soul drops the body. The soul does not have any fear. All the soul experiences is love because the soul is composed from the one. And that is all love.»
Quirky and tender; respectful and frank, End of Life reminds us that in the midst of life we are in death and that celebrating life up to and beyond its end is a blessing.