“Somebody told me, it’s never going to end,” says Ondi Timoner, “and I’m starting to believe it.” When we speak, it’s been over 18 months since Timoner flew to Park City for the Sundance premiere of her achingly personal film Last Flight Home for Sundance, and by the usual rule of thumb its journey should now be well and truly over. The director hasn’t been idle; her follow-up, The New Americans: Gaming a Revolution, debuted at SXSW in the spring, and her latest film, The INN Between, is in full swing.
But the power of Last Flight Home holds steady. In July it made the Emmy nominations shortlist in the category for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking, and just last week it was announced that Timoner had been awarded a Humanitas Prize, which comes with a trophy and a cash prize of $10,000. That money is being put to good use; humbled by the reaction to the story of her severely disabled 92-year-old father’s decision to invoke California’s End of Life Option Act (“A compassionate law we didn’t even know existed,” she says), Timoner will using it to spread awareness of the film’s subject.
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Although it swirled in the mix, the film didn’t wind up making the final Oscar round, which was clearly a disappointment. “But when we didn’t make the nomination — which, apparently, we, anecdotally, missed by not much — at that point, it was like, ‘Well, that’s the end of the journey with the distributor pushing it.’ But I realized that the real work still hadn’t been done — the job of getting it to the people that need to see it in order to move the legislation that needs to happen. I mean, it’s only a law for nine states here in the US.”
“I decided I’d give myself 48 hours,” she recalls, “and then I needed to pull up my bootstraps.”
Timoner knows how important the issue is because she’s reminded on a regular basis. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t receive incoming messages,” she says. “Fan mail if you will. On Instagram usually, but it’s on Twitter, too, and Facebook. Sometimes people get ahold of my email — I’m not sure how. Personally, I’ve been moved maybe a couple of times in my life to write to a filmmaker after seeing their film. But sometimes I’ll be getting 20 messages a day. People thank me for sharing this story and for helping them to heal, or for helping them to prepare for the death of their father or mother, or sister or loved one. Sometimes they’re from terminally ill people who are actually preparing their own deaths.”
In the US, Timoner’s company has partnered with Compassion & Choices, the largest and oldest advocacy group in the country for end-of-life choices. And, overseas in the UK, Dignity in Dying has asked her to come and speak with them and share the film. “We’ve been asked to address the World Federation of Right to Die Societies in Ireland,” she says, “and we’ve been described as the most powerful tool that they’ve ever had, in terms of helping people to understand the nuances of this: it’s not murder or suicide, it’s literally being able to have some agency in your own passing. It’s your own bodily autonomy at the end of your life that we’re talking about. And it shouldn’t be as controversial as abortion, right? Because there’s no other potential life involved, it’s just you and your body. And why should the government be between you and your body?
“What actually happens when a person does have this ability to say, ‘I need to go now, and I’m going to choose a day so that my family can gather around me,’ is that they get to have a send-off that has peace and closure for everyone involved. It sounds fairly simple, but everything in that film, from the Zoom calls to the visits, to the grandkids coming home… Although it was terrifying, and we felt like we were walking the plank, it comes down to the fact that everyone deserves this right. And they don’t have it.”
Why not? “They don’t have it because there’s such a stigma around talking about dying,” she says flatly. “We’re all so mortified — no pun intended — to talk or even think about it. And it’s really very, very sad. But if we can be inspired to think about it just a little bit, and to plan for the inevitable just a little bit — even if we’re not going to choose medical aid in dying for ourselves — it’s possible to have a good death.”
Key to that messaging, she believes, is Eli himself, who goes out with dignity, grace and humor. “Because Dad is so clear of mind, so funny, so tender and so lovable, people see him and they fall in love with him. And then they can’t help but respect his decision and perhaps understand it a little differently.”
“I think that’s what makes him such a powerful emissary for this very difficult topic,” she says. “We’ve been in Congress, and we’ve been going state by state. We have screenings coming up in the top medical schools, to reach the top doctors at the divinity schools. But we’re also meeting with members of government. I was just in San Diego two days ago with Representative Scott Peters, who’s a senior House member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Which, of all the committees in the U.S. House of Representatives here, is the one that determines what’s going to happen [in this area].
“He’d seen the film and he was so moved by it. He was like, “I’ve got you. I’m going to co-sponsor Eli’s Law,” which is a law that will hopefully reform a current federal ban on medical aid and dying funding. He’s going to help push it over the line, hopefully. Because it should be a bipartisan-supported issue.”
All this is just a fraction of what’s been happening these last 18 months.
“But I hope that explains why [my film] has such a long road: It’s deeply personal, and I don’t think it’ll ever lose its relevance for people that are facing death — which, by the way, is everybody. And another thing I’d like to say about it is that when you’re terminally ill, you don’t have a chance to become an activist. You’re too busy trying to fight for your own life, or you’re trying to say goodbye to your loved ones. By the time you’re in this position, it’s too late to try to get a law passed. It’s something that needs to be helped along by people who are still well, people like me.”
“I became an activist on this,” she says. “I’ve made films before where I could have become an activist, but, on this one, it feels like I need to be Dad’s agent here on earth.”
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