“I want to choose to have a magnificent ending to my life, because I’ve had a magnificent life.”
By
Daisy Dumas

1 May 2018 - 2:21 PM  UPDATED 1 May 2018 - 2:21 PM

When Peter Short’s final, laboured breaths cut to a still, gaunt face, we see the passing of a man whose story won’t be forgotten.

As the subject of a documentary film, Fade to Black, the former Shell Coles Express CEO will live on, but it is his approach to his death that makes his life so memorable.

Diagnosed with terminal oesophageal cancer, the Melburnian dedicated his final months to campaigning for Greens leader Richard Di Natale’s federal Dying with Dignity bill. As Short’s condition worsened, so unfolded a journey to Parliament House as he set out to change the laws around assisted dying in Australia.

New to SBS On Demand, the film played to sell out public screenings around the country. Fade to Black  also won the jury prize for best documentary at Kansas Film Festival. But its producer and director, Jeremy Ervine, remembers warning Short before filming started in 2014.  

“Go and tell your family that this is going to be an incredibly invasive process,” he tells SBS Life from his home in London. “It will feel like being on Big Brother throughout one of the worst times of your life. You need to make sure that they’re really ok with you doing this.”

At first, they weren’t, but after meeting Adelaide-born Ervine, their minds changed. With his wife Elizabeth and son Mitchell, Short allowed his remaining weeks, death and funeral to be filmed. It was an extraordinarily open gesture by the advocate whose last wish was to be able to choose how and when he died after being given six to nine months to live on his 57th birthday.  

Short took advice from assisted dying advocate Rodney Syme, and procured a bottle of the drug Nembutal.

“Do I drip out on a morphine tube or do I pick a moment ... with my wife and my son … and say goodbye, take an appropriate drug in an environment where the state and the country supports what I’m doing?” Short asks. “I want to choose to have a magnificent ending to my life, because I’ve had a magnificent life.”

Swallowing the drug and dying from its effects is classed as suicide which is not a crime in Australia. However, under current legislation, the doctor who provided the drug or assisted the death in any way can be prosecuted.

Six states in the US and four countries in Europe have legalised some form of assisted dying. More than 80 per cent of voting Australians support a change to the law.

Charismatic and disarmingly open, Short told “every single person” he met that he was dying, before inviting their views on assisted dying, recalls Ervine. He says that Short’s story has shown him that comfortably sharing one’s own death with others can reduce their grief.

“He had this way of making everyone feel really at ease and at peace with the situation he was in … it didn’t have a negative emotional effect on people,” he says. “He made it really difficult to get into a perspective where you felt sad.”

“He had this way of making everyone feel really at ease and at peace with the situation he was in … it didn’t have a negative emotional effect on people,” he says. “He made it really difficult to get into a perspective where you felt sad.”

The film was made on a tiny budget and all of its crew volunteered throughout the six month filming process. Post production was completed in the evenings and on weekends, around Ervine’s usual work. Audiences around the world have credited the film with starting a conversation around death.

As the film nears its inevitable close, Short, who died in December 2014, does not drink his dose of Nembutal. But it was having the choice that really mattered.  

“He felt he was in control and had that power the whole way through,” explains Ervine.

While he opposed state-based legislation on the basis that Australians would need to move states to end their lives, Short’s story has had an effect in his home state. In November, Victoria became the first state to legalise assisted suicide.

The film is currently available on SBS On Demand and will be broadcast in July.

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