On the Internet you can find photos of Cody Curtis on a family safari in Africa in December 2006. She is the picture of happiness and health.
Within a year, still bounding with life on her 52nd birthday, Curtis was diagnosed with liver cancer. Two years later she was dead.
We know a great deal about Cody Curtis, a wife and mother of two from Portland, because the last 10 months of her life were captured in Peter Richardson’s documentary “How to Die in Oregon,” a film about six terminally ill Oregonians who engage in the state’s Death with Dignity Act.
Ultimately, the lasting image the world will have of Curtis is not one of suffering and misery, but one of liveliness and peace. Richardson set out to make a film about death and dying, and it turned out to be quite the opposite.
“You could almost call the film ‘How to Live in Oregon,’ because the lessons you learn about living from a person who is dying can be transformative,” said Richardson, who was raised in Philomath and now lives in Portland. “These individuals understand the value and meaning of their own life even more when ultimately confronted with their death. There’s almost a clarifying presence that that can have in your own life when you are exposed to it.”
Richardson’s film has thrust Curtis’ life and controversial manner of dying into the national spotlight. On Jan. 29, “How to Die in Oregon” won the Grand Jury Prize for best U.S. documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. The New York Times recently called it “one of the most difficult-to-watch movies of the festival, this year or any year,” but that hasn’t stopped people from talking about it.
That’s precisely why Richardson made the film.
“I felt it was a very important issue that had been lying dormant for some time,” said Richardson, whose first documentary — “Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon” — was screened at Sundance in 2006. “There was a lengthy narrative that hadn’t been told, and it deserves an in-depth look at the law and the stories of the people it affects.
“Now that the film is out there, it’s stirring up interest in Oregon and across the country.”
Indeed, “How to Die in Oregon” will be screened Friday, Feb. 11, at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Montana, a state that legalized assisted suicide in 2009. Now that law is under intense scrutiny in the state legislature. Richardson hopes his movie will inform the debate.
In a recent phone interview, the director repeatedly referred to the film’s subjects as “individuals.” His word choice made sense, of course, but it seemed as though it was Richardson’s way of keeping a professional tone while working on a project that surely was more personal than any he’ll ever work on.
“I was present for many intimate moments with the family. Cody’s husband (Stan) and the family called it an interviewer’s free therapy,” he said. “In the course of the film I became a confidant, and I’ve definitely grown close to them. It was very difficult to lose Cody. There’s no question about that. I knew that would be the case going in, but I was still very passionate about making the film.”
Produced by HBO Documentary Films, it will be shown by the cable TV giant at 8 p.m. May 19. The attention received since winning one of Sundance’s biggest prizes has been somewhat difficult for Richardson, 31, to cope with. His acceptance speech at Sundance was excited but relatively tame. After all, how do you celebrate winning an award for a film that is agonizingly painful to watch but was even more excruciating to record?
Luckily, the Curtis family — strangers to him barely two years ago and now people to whom he is inextricably connected for the rest of his life — has shown him it’s OK to smile again.
“It has been a real celebration for them in a very genuinely happy sense, and I’ve taken their lead,” Richardson said. “All the families are approaching the film as a celebration of the lives of the people they’ve lost. It’s a retelling of at least a part of their stories.
“There’s a great loss, of course. They feel that and I feel that very acutely. As much of a privilege as it was, you still miss them so much and you can’t get past that. It is bittersweet, but I think it’s becoming more sweet than bitter.”