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
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
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.

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil