I helped my father end his own life. He helped me by letting me film it | Film

TheLast year, I made the most personal movie of my career, about the death of Ellie’s parents. In January 2021, at the age of 92, my father was in the hospital, without the prospect of recovery. My mother was struggling to cope. It seems the only option is to go to a facility for his remaining months.

I have been a filmmaker for 30 years and have always dreamed of telling my father’s story. I tend to make films about characters I describe as “impossible dreamers”: people with a singular vision who sometimes act in an impossible way to try to achieve it — and to withstand the suspicion and ridicule they experience.

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Sometimes, that’s just a nice way to describe paranoid, but I’m drawn to telling stories of people who push boundaries, because I believe — rightly or wrongly — that they’ll inspire others to live more interesting, gut-driven lives.

In my movie Dig! We see Anton Newcombe lead the Brian Jonestown Massacre band through countless great records while simultaneously sabotaging every chance of achieving commercial success. For We Live in Public, I followed Josh Harris as dot.com spent millions creating a live social experience inside a Manhattan cyber bunker to try and demonstrate the loss of intimacy and privacy that can come with broadband internet.

I watched Russell Brand look higher in Brand: A Second Coming, while Matt Smith took the lead in my bio of Robert Mapplethorpe, the controversial photographer best known for his S&M shots and gorgeous flowers.

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MY ORIGINAL VISION... The Timoner family was introduced in October 1979 with one of Eli's Air Florida planes.
My original vision… The Timoner family (with young Ondi second from right) in October 1979 with one of Eli’s Air Florida jets. Photo: Courtesy of the MTV Documentary

My original visionary of the impossible was my father: the most determined and inventive person I have ever known. Fifty years ago, he founded an airline, Air Florida, which became the fastest growing airline in the world. One day 10 years later, when he was 53, he ran six miles and led a meeting of 1,000 employees, before going in for a massage, during which he received a primitive “neck crack” to relieve stress. The operation damaged an artery, which immediately bulged, leading to a debilitating stroke that left the father paralyzed on one side of his body and blinded in his left eye.

He was fired from the airline and lost everything financially. However, his sense of humor, resilience, and grace allowed him to go on to live a rich and successful life for the next forty years.

However, the prospect of being separated from his family at the beginning of last year could not have been imagined. Having suffered from paralysis for many years and never complained, my father was desperately asking for help. We needed to respect his wishes, but how?

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A few years ago, I was deeply influenced by a movie I saw of Peter Richardson called How to Die in Oregon. This came on the heels of several people who committed suicide legally when that country became the first in the United States to allow it. I will never forget the last shots, from outside the boarded up windows, where the main character says her final goodbyes and takes the drink that will kill her. That was 2011.

Ten years later, when my dad was suddenly pleading with us to help him end his life, I had no idea he’d really become a Californian. My brother discovered a law that allows terminally ill patients to end their lives after a 15-day waiting period. We brought him home to start hospice care – and we started the clock. We installed his hospital bed in the middle of the living room and informed friends and family that he was leaving us on March 3rdAnd the date chosen.

Andy Timoner.
Making movies has been there for me like an old friend… Ondi Timoner. Photo: Joe Maher/Getty Images for BFI

I felt an unstoppable urge to photograph my dad, but I was worried. Was I trying to use the cameras to distance myself from the fact that my father was dying? Or will it disrupt my family’s experience? I saw a therapist who said I should follow my intuition – and most importantly, my dad agreed.

Making movies has been there for me like an old friend. It allowed me to be fully present as my dad’s daughter and the quarterback in charge of him, because I didn’t have to worry about forgetting the sound of his voice or the often precious and funny things he said.

Three weeks after his death, we held a memorial service online. My sister asked me to shoot a five-minute video. I didn’t want to touch the shots so early in my grief, but when I did, I was blown away. My father was alive inside my liberation system, but he, too, was no longer suffering. He had the right to die on his terms, and I could grieve with him, laugh and cry for hours on end, revisiting that sacred space through the eyes of an objective camera. I had a newfound appreciation for the infinite, magical power of film.

A week later, I handed in a 32-minute video for memory. From there, I just couldn’t stop editing. When I went from daughter to filmmaker, I noticed that everyone who came into my parents’ living room let it change. They seemed relieved and relieved by my father’s bravery and love – and his sharp wit. Watching this — noticing it now, even though it’s in the room while it’s happening — was the most transformative experience of my life.

I think one of the miracles of cinema is that the more intimate the film-maker is, the more relatable and impactful our work is. I invite audiences into my parents’ home without mediation or narrative, which frees them from personal interaction with the world in front of them—and people tell me they see their families on screen, even as they get to know mine. .

My mother watched whatever version of the movie I cut every day for the first year after my father’s death. She wanted to spend time with him. Now she is touring the world with the film to share her husband with others.

I think the main reason my father was so determined to end his life was because he felt he could do more to help us if he were free of his body. Now, he lives on in the hearts and minds of not only his family, but strangers as well, as a beautiful vision of humanity that teaches us as much about how to live as it teaches us about how we can die.

Last Flight Home hits theaters November 25.

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