Judge Jennifer Malkowski acknowledges that even facing documentaries about facing death is pretty challenging.
"I was a doctor at a university clinic. I noticed that people who are
dying can get awfully lonely. I talked to them and realized that they know
they're dying and really need to talk about it. That's how I started talking to
them. It's not as sad as most people think."
The above words from physician Elisabeth Kübler-Ross express the spirit of her remarkably (and controversially) simple project that led to her famed 1969 book, On Death and Dying: to talk openly with the dying about their experiences and to really listen to what they have to say. As basic as that mission sounds, it was revolutionary at a time when death was a great taboo in American culture and when the medical establishment battled to "prolong life" and counted each patient death as a failure. A friend and colleague of Kübler-Ross explains that the notion of mentioning the subject of death to a dying patient in that era was considered bizarre and voyeuristic, even "ghoulish." As Kübler-Ross faces her own death in this 2003 documentary, one could argue that not much had changed in American culture and in medical priorities, but her book had made a huge impact on the lives (and, of course, deaths) of millions of people facing the end of life or the loss of a loved one. With Facing Death: Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, director Stefan Haupt explores Kübler-Ross's life story and gives us a hint of her "death story" with clips from an interview with the terminally ill Kübler-Ross in her Arizona home. This monumental figure in the culture of death and dying and the modern-day hospice movement confronted the end of her own life on Aug. 24, 2004, and this well-made documentary provides an insightful look back at her life and work.
Haupt provides a nice variety of material to supplement the interview with Kübler-Ross, including old photographs, home movies, and other interviews with family, colleagues, and even a detractor or two. Most interesting among this material were the few film clips of Kübler-Ross actually interacting with dying patients in the 70s and 80s and, later, running her controversial workshops. We can read about Kübler-Ross's compassion for and impact on the dying, but getting to watch her comfort a dying mother and reassure her that her life has meaning even if she can no longer take care of her children really helps us understand her talent on a more emotional level.
Another such moment is a candid conversation between Kübler-Ross and Keith, a young boy either recovering from or dying from cancer (the context is not clear). Kübler-Ross asks Keith what death means to him, and Keith, after considering the question for a moment, replies, "One thing I learned…is that life is pretty tough." The sheer lack of pretension and artifice in this profound interaction between a grown doctor and a young patient is fascinating and inspiring to watch. Haupt and his interviewees don't shy away from the more controversial phases of Kübler-Ross's life, either, as they cover her exploration of several varieties of afterlife "hocus pocus," as her sister says, and her confrontations with community members near her Virginia farm in the 90s.
As usual with dry, talking-head or archival footage documentaries, the director also tries to liven up the visuals, this time with pensive shots of the Arizona desert and a staged scene of a dinner party accompanied by narration about the universality and sudden nature of death. An example of the latter type is when a baby is shown on screen and the voice-of-God style narrator says, "When a new life begins, we fear for its safety. Thus, from the very beginning of life, we sense death." The desert scenes are harmless and provide some nice breathing room amid the chunks of information about Kübler-Ross and the interviews, but the likely audience of Haupt's documentary (those interested in death studies and familiar with Kübler-Ross's work) may find the dinner party scenes and narration rather trite and condescending.
Luckily, the film's most valuable contribution—the interview with Kübler-Ross as she neared her own death—is handled much better than these dinner party sequences. Kübler-Ross, though impaired physically (and perhaps, somewhat, mentally) by a series of strokes in 1995 still speaks with conviction and warmth about her work and about approaching her own death. Surprisingly, there is not too much of this footage and I suspect that it was culled from only a handful of interview sessions, if that. Perhaps Haupt's portrait of this dying woman is a bit incomplete, but regardless, the ironic and fascinating sense of her death that we are left with is that it presents to her many of the same challenges that she lamented in her patients: loneliness, dependence, loss of mobility, and perhaps even a desire to hang on to life for just a little bit longer. Living alone in her Arizona home with only part-time hired help, Kübler-Ross describes everyday tasks like getting out of bed and finding food as huge physical ordeals for her, and Haupt implies that she doesn't have much company. In a previous interview, her sister Erika claimed to be irritated by the way Elisabeth wanted to prolong her life, saying "She wrote so much about death and dying, glorified it even. And now her time has come and she says, 'I still have to do this and that.'" If this portrait is accurate, then maybe in the face of her own death, Kübler-Ross ended up validating the universality of her famous "five phases" of dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Perhaps even her extensive background and experiences did not enable her to "skip ahead," as it were, to accepting her own death, though I'm don't think Haupt's documentary can provide definitive evidence of this interpretation of her final months. In any case, like any other dying patient, Kübler-Ross seems to value having someone to talk to—in this case, the film audience—and the final impression of her we are left with is of a woman ready to take that journey into death where, as she says, she looks forward to "dancing all across the galaxies."
Video and audio quality on Facing Death: Elisabeth Kübler-Ross are sufficient and pretty standard for a fairly low-budget digital video documentary. No video special features are provided, only a few bundles of on-screen info about Kübler-Ross's books, her foundation, and the process of grief.
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