ANOTHER VIEW : Filming the last taboo

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The Independent Online
Bryan Appleyard argues that television is not reality, but a devastatingly convincing version of it. Logically, his argument is an objection to all observational factual television. He asks, how can we make judgements when we cannot smell, touch, and actually participate in an event? Yet if this lack of "really being there" undermines the validity of Modern Times: Death on Request, it is a problem that equally applies to the televising of all situations in which viewers are invited to make judgements.

Does Mr Appleyard really believe that when television viewers see violent fans invade a football pitch, it is impossible to make judgements about such thuggish behaviour because viewers can't smell the beer on the hooligans' breath or feel the pain of their punches? Drawing attention to the sensory limitations of television is a red herring.

There are two crucial considerations. First, did Cees van Wendel de Joode and his wife want Cees's final weeks, and his death, to be filmed? Second, is the film a useful contribution to the debate on euthanasia? The answer to both questions is yes.

Mr Appleyard considers the presence of the camera crew at Cees's death to be "sordid" and that it "changed everything". But the only way he suggests in which it might have altered events on the evening of Cees's death is in the choice of the doctor's knitwear.

In fact, in interviews that Anthoinette, Cees's wife, has given since her husband's death, she says that the documentary team had become so close to her and Cees that on the evening he died she was unaware of their presence until after his death. Even then, she only realised they were there because she heard sobbing in the corridor. It was the cameraman giving vent to his feelings.

All documentary makers know that the greater the significance of an event to the people being filmed, the less aware they are of the presence of a professional documentary team. This was an event of the deepest significance to those involved. It was in no sense cheapened by being filmed.

In our society death has become the last taboo. We encounter it only rarely, and we prefer to draw a veil over its reality. Many of us are terrified of the process of dying, perhaps because we know so little about it. This film reveals something of what it is like to die, and to face death. As Mr Appleyard says, it is well-made and moving. But it moves people in different ways. Some viewers are horrified at seeing the reality of euthanasia. Others feel that it shows that if someone wants to end their life this way it can be more dignified than waiting for a terminal illness to take its course.

For anyone who has seen Death on Request, the experience of sharing the last few weeks of Cees's life is likely to remain part of their thoughts whenever they consider the issue of euthanasia. That is its justification.

The writer is editor of BBC2's `Modern Times'.

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