3 min

Death becomes all of us

So how do you want to go?

Credit: Xtra files

Why would you or I want to watch a 147-minute documentary following the death of five individuals in hospital?

Celebrated Canadian filmmaker Alan King has crafted a harrowing, unsentimental look at death. The fear, the tears, the icky fluids, the doped-up silences, the laboured breaths, the heart-wrenching sobs, the boring waiting, the open-mouthed dead – King presents it all without voiceover narration or off-camera interviews.

King is considered a pioneer of cinema verité. He rose to international prominence in the late 1960s with Warrendale, his film on a treatment centre for disturbed children that was a controversial sensation, winning prizes at Cannes and the British Academy Awards. He has directed drama, as well, including the 1976 feature Who Has Seen The Wind and many TV episodes of Road To Avonlea.

The absence of commentary in Dying At Grace has limitations. You want to know more about the history of each patient. You’d like to hear from the nurses on how they cope with continual loss or their impressions of the people under their care. You’d like to interview the camera people who bore silent witness to horribly intimate moments.

What’s gained is less clear.

The film’s tone and tempo are very gentle. Like the hospital staff in their careful conversations with patients, the film strains to not overwhelm the five individuals, instead, letting each person present their own halting and, at times, incoherent needs and feelings.

Percolating up from the confusion and sorrow are some flashes of wit, of life, that provoke surprising pleasure – like real hospital visits.

But those moments are not enough to compel you to see this film.

I don’t know what the experience of viewing it in a theatre will be like. Watching on tape, I kept turning off the TV or turning down the volume when the gurgling breaths became too much. Viewers may have to leave for breaks.

Some viewers might also find there’s too much God talk (the Grace is run by the Salvation Army). At times all the praying seems like noise to fill the void, though, mostly, it appears to offer true solace. At least the staff is equally respectful of the one atheist profiled.

God also figures prominently because of Lloyd Greenway, a former Metropolitan Community Church pastor. He is the youngest person to die and his death is one of the hardest to watch, he’s so frightened and his breathing is so arduous.

Gayness is never mentioned. Greenway’s partner of 30 years, Norm Collins, is dealt with as tenderly as any other family member.

One of the film’s objectives is to help fill a hole in the culture, a near total absence of meaningful discussions of death. But do we need more reminders of our mortality? At least, do homos over 30 need that reminder?

So why watch? Perhaps Eda Simac gives a reason. Suffering from brain cancer, Eda had been in the hospital the longest and was healthy enough to consider leaving (through the front door). She said watching her roommates die wasn’t upsetting because now she knows what she’s facing.

Dying At Grace also aims to promote palliative care, a patient-centred approach based on carefully calibrated pain management for the terminally ill, ensuring patients decide on appropriate levels of medical intervention, and giving as much attention to people’s spiritual needs as their physical ones. No one can escape death but you can avoid dying in pain, going through unwanted surgery or lingering on life support. Knowing that such an approach is in place can provide inestimable comfort for the dying and their loved ones. According to King, palliative care is only available to 10 percent of patients in Canada.

This is an issue close to many people’s hearts – including mine.

My father’s death from cancer was freighted with irony.

A respected researcher and lecturer on the chemistry of the human body, he died in a hospital connected to the faculty of medicine where he worked for 35 years, one staffed by many of his former students. But he couldn’t get into a palliative care unit because of mild complications from surgery. It was a matter of red tape. The staff in the surgery ward, though wonderful, were not as adept at pain management as palliative care specialists. His drug regimen resulted in a chemical imbalance and temporary derangement. His avoidable babblings left scars in the family.

My father, a strong advocate of palliative care, hoped to be admitted to the main palliative care hospital in town, which we can see from our home located a block away. He never got there.

So why watch Dying At Grace? To see if Ontario Health Minister Tony Clement is.

* Dying At Grace screens at 8:30pm on Mon, Sep 8 at Cumberland 3 and at 6pm on Thu, Sep 11 at the Varsity 7.