DocFest Film Review: Man on Earth
DocFest rounded off the weekend portion of its programme with the premiere of Man on Earth, part of its International Competition. This strand of the fest covers a wildly diverse range of international premieres and subject matter, and none more niche, in fact, than Man on Earth, which in truth made for a somewhat sombre Sunday night screening at The Light Cinema.
Man on Earth follows Bob, a 65 year-old Jewish New Yorker, who after living with Parkinson’s Disease for four years has decided to end his own life using Washington State’s ‘Dying with Dignity’ legislation (imagine a country where you can be euthanised legally, but it’s illegal to have an abortion!). The film captures the last week of Bob’s life with intimate, and at times wincingly up close and personal access, as he faces his own mortality, wrestles with the choice he’s made and its effect on others around him, and reckons with the legacy he’s leaving behind.
Part of that legacy is his son, Jessie (above), who has ‘stepped up’ for his dad in those final days, becoming his primary care giver and meds dispenser. Jessie is the first to admit that he’s ‘not a people person’ and struggles with empathy, leading to an at times strained, but never unaffectionate, relationship between father and son. We learn from the filmmaker after the screening that Jessie also died in a car accident just six months after the film was completed, the knowledge of which adds yet another layer of tragedy.
At the heart of the documentary is a meditation on time. Bob feels he often has no real concept of it as he staves off the boredom of those final days doing quizzes with Alexa, while at the same time there is an urgency to tie up loose ends and a feeling there simply isn’t enough time. One of the loose ends is Bob’s other son, who can’t bring himself to come to Bob’s death and is instead at martial arts competition he’s competing in. One of the most gut-wrenching scenes is their final phone call, which ends with Bob throwing the phone on the bed and collapsing to the floor, almost apoplectic with grief.
Given the nature of the subject matter and scenes like the one described above, it’s obviously powerful stuff, but it also isn’t without its humour and warmth either, and is surprisingly uplifting at times. The unrelenting tragedy of it all might have been unbearable if Bob himself wasn’t such a funny guy, and his sense of humour remains charmingly black right to the end.
And it is a definitive end. It’s a disconcerting experience to watch a film, and get to know a character, knowing in the final scene you’re going to watch him die. The finality of it is heart breaking. The final scene lingers tight on Bob’s face after he’s been given the ‘the mix’ that has knocked him unconscious and will ultimately end his life, before cutting to a shot of Bob hovering in a doorway before retreating back into the bedroom where most of the film is shot, and then cutting back to Bob as he slips away.
The genesis for Man on Earth came out of director Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s work on another documentary, Traces, but was actually Bob’s idea. As a frustrated performer, Bob gives a staggering amount of access to himself in those final days and in return the piece gives a powerful insight into a relatively new phenomenon.