Last Night's Television: Right to Die? Sky Real Lives

A dignified departure

"Rather surprisingly, I find that I feel much the way I imagine immigrants to America must have felt in the 19th century. I cannot stay where I have been and I embark on a journey to a destination of which I have only heard the vaguest rumours." Writing to his friends and family about his travel plans, Craig Ewert didn't labour another element of the analogy. Like almost all of those immigrants, he knew with certainty that there would be no return trip, because he was planning to commit suicide with the help of the Swiss organisation Dignitas. And John Zaritsky's film Right to Die? – the subject of a considerable amount of knee-jerk affront and moral flutter yesterday – was going to record the process.

The first thing to say about a film that will have been heard about by vastly more people than actually saw it – since it was transmitted on a new cable channel, Sky Real Lives – was that the reports that it featured the moment of Ewert's death were a little wide of the mark. You saw him falling asleep after he'd taken the medication that had been prescribed to kill, and you saw him pronounced dead, but the camera cut away in between, as if reluctant to linger in prurience for the precise moment. The second would be that it was far more nuanced and troubling than some of the press coverage might have led you to expect. Ewert, a college lecturer who was suffering from motor neurone disease, was the central subject, but Zaritsky had also filmed the Coumbias, a delightful Greek-Canadian couple whose request to go on Dignitas's books was eventually turned down.

"Why don't I go healthy and happy?" George Coumbias asked, worried that his heart condition was steadily slicing the pleasures out of his life. "No golf, no tennis, no sex... so it remains good food and good wine... I wonder when they are going to tell me, 'You are not allowed to do that?'" His healthy wife, utterly devoted to him, declared that her oft-stated reluctance to live without him was not mere rhetoric and that she planned to die too, arm in arm. But their pleasure in each other's company, and George's ebullience in adversity made it all but unthinkable that they should be approved for oblivion. For those who believe that life and death is an individual choice – not something to be constrained by other people's religion or other people's fear – they were a tough test case.

Craig Ewert was a different matter entirely, a man bowed by his disease and sucking at his breath in a way that looked like hard labour. He spoke with a dry forensic clarity about the options that faced him and struck you as a man who was far more frightened of dying than of death itself, worried that his disease would advance to the point where his ability to choose would disappear. "I've got two choices," he said, his speech measured out by shallow breaths. "I go through with it or I say, 'You know what? I'm too scared right now. I don't want to do it.' If I go through with it, I die as I must at some point. If I don't go through with it, my choice is essentially to suffer, and to inflict suffering on my family and then die! Possibly in a way that is considerably more painful and stressful than this way." More pointedly, he addressed the standard religious objection to human decisions about the ending of a life. "The Christians never say, 'We have to stop organ transplants. We have to stop helping premature babies.' No, then it's all right to play God."

The craft of Zaritsky's film was always going to struggle for attention over its subject matter, but it was there, in the way that the camera kept looking past Craig's shoulder to see life continuing in the local park and in the time- lapse sequences that entered the film when the couple finally went to Switzerland, which seemed to capture some of the blurred unreality of booking in for your own death. It didn't veil the final minutes either, the wince as Ewert swallowed the drug that would kill him, the fact that the end wasn't the idyll of calm resolution you might have conjured up. He was scared and it showed. "I've learnt something new," he said with willed perkiness after asking a question about the device that would turn off his life support, "Every day you learn something new... even in the last day." And then he exited, seen only in stills from that point on as if to press home the finality of his departure. "Safe journey and a good sleep," his wife said, as he lay back and closed his eyes. It might sound like faint praise – but it's meant as forthright defence – to say that this was a decent film.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game