Nobody wants to talk about it, but death is inevitable. While most of us can put it to the back our minds, those with a terminal diagnosis have no alternative but to face the subject head on.
Melbourne’s Peter Short was one of them. At 57, the high-flying boss of a national retail chain was told he had incurable cancer and was given five to nine months to live.
With the support of his family, he used the relentless “tick-tock, tick-tock” of time to inform himself about his choices, adopt a position and then bring his campaign in support of euthanasia into the national spotlight.
Fade to Black, a documentary now screening on SBS On Demand, is a deeply personal story that is broadened to canvas the national and international debate about the right to die on your own terms.
While polls have shown that as many as 82 per cent of Australians believe in the right to assisted dying, the situation in our federal and state parliaments is somewhat different, due in no small part to intense lobbying from those who oppose it. In most cases where it’s been tested, the anti-euthanasia argument has held sway.
What may seem as an individual or family matter, is a moral, ethical, political and religious can of worms.
The documentary looks at how language is used to colour the debate, with opponents use such terms as “assisted suicide” and “killing”, and proponents invoking individiualrights. Also discussed is the “slippery slope” argument: that allowing assisted death is open to abuse.
Well-known figures, including former premier of Victoria Jeff Kennett, television host Andrew Denton and “Dr Death” Philip Nitschke, appear alongside people who have found themselves, or placed themselves, at the centre of the issue.
We are also taken into the halls of power, with Short and others, including Right to Life and Christian Lobby campaigner Margaret Tighe, fronting the media and addressing a Senate committee hearing into a “Dying with DIgnity” bill proposed by Greens Senator Richard Di Natale.
But mostly this is a very personal film about Peter Short, his wife Elizabeth and their son Mitchell.
We get a glimpse of him at his active and inspirational best, spearheading a campaign to raise funds for the Cancer Council through his position as CEO of Shell Coles Express, and later some emotional scenes of his family life as the oesophageal cancer relentlessly progresses.
But this is not a downbeat or impenetrable film; it has too much to say about the value of human life, expressed from many points of view that viewers may or may not embrace.
Short’s sense of humour, his positive attitude and his sheer love for his family and for life itself shine through the darkest of subject matters.
Its producers say Fade to Black is Australia’s most successful crowd-funded documentary — and a long list of credits attests to that. This is clearly an issue that engages people and inspires great passion.
Director Jeremy Ervine, co-writer David Campbell and their crew have created a thing of beauty that touches on issues we may want to dodge, but are important to us all.
In the end, Short does make a decision on his own terms, but it may not be the one you thought you saw coming.
Compelling, thought-provoking and life-affirming, Fade to Black airs at 9pm Thursday 13 September on SBS VICELAND and is streaming anytime at SBS on Demand: