February 5, 2004  
Volume 97, Issue 70  

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Documentary Dying at Grace presents a myriad of emotions

By Georgia Tanner
Gazette Writer

“This film is about the experience of dying.”

Even the blunt words that appear at the beginning of the film cannot fully prepare you for what you are about to see. Allan King’s Dying at Grace document the final days of five people at the Salvation Army Toronto Grace Health Centre. It is both sensitive and explicit in the way it presents their struggle, and can be difficult to watch.

Dying at Grace is not afraid to show all aspects of death. At a time when movies typically show the terminally ill facing death with admirable courage, the common and understandable fear reflected in one patient’s words, “I just don’t want to go to sleep [for fear of death]” is all the more shaking.

The film shows us that having courage at the end of one’s life may not necessarily mean being ready for or unafraid of death. It depicts both the fear and terrible isolation of going through our final days.

Feelings of isolation and misunderstanding are not uncommon. Eda, one of the more optimistic patients in the film, refuses to speak to some of her friends, preferring to deal with the issue of death on her own.

Carmela, an elderly Italian-Canadian, specifically requests her family not be with her at the moment of death. Expressing the feeling of isolation of the terminally ill, Lloyd, a minister for the Metropolitan Community Church, asks his nurse, “Does he (the cameraman) understand?”

But King’s documentary doesn’t try to teach understanding; it doesn’t try to explain death, make it pretty or scary or even ask the viewer to come to any particular conclusion. All we are shown are five different experiences, five different lives and a myriad of emotions.

Each person who watches Dying at Grace reacts differently. No two people will react to death the same way, nor necessarily the way we expect.

In the film, Lloyd was both sad and afraid to die, even though he knew heaven was waiting for him; while Eda was more accepting, though she didn’t know what awaited her afterwards. And while some family members sobbed at their loved one’s bedside, others optimistically spoke of a possible brighter future or of happy memories.

In its stark portrayal of others dealing with the prospect of imminent death, the film forces the viewer to confront the essentials of their own lives.

The documentary is as much about oneself as it is about the people in it. It makes one appreciate life and the richness of the lives of the people dying in the film.

Dying at Grace was named one of Canada’s Top 10 at the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival. The documentary premieres on TVO on Wednesday, Feb. 11 at 9 p.m. and features a phone-in discussion afterwards.



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