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'Kevorkian' Spotlights Our Attitudes About Death

In Kevorkian, Jack Kevorkian repeatedly draws attention not only to this nation's denial of death, but also to how such denial is shaped by media.


Director: Matthew Galkin
Cast: Jack Kevorkian, Neal Nicol, Jack Lessenberry, Geoffrey Feiger, Flora Holzeimer, Ruth Holmes
Rated: NR
Studio: HBO Documentaries
Year: 2009
US date: 2010-06-28 (HBO)

"Could Dr. Death go to Washington as a Congressman?" Alarming as the headline sounds, the story behind Jack Kevorkian's run for office in 2008 is oddly heartening. He describes its inception as a single moment, one of those apocryphal stories that's probably not precisely true but serves a truthful purpose. While reading the Ninth Amendment, he says, he realized that it is "key to every crisis we face." Recently released from prison, he saw that his conviction was not only wrong, but also unconstitutional, a pint he felt compelled to bring to his fellow citizens' attention.

And so, even amid the hubbub of 2008's historic presidential campaign, Jack Kevorkian generated his own bit of excitement, however small the scale or limited the effect. The documentary Kevorkian tracks his campaign, while also providing contexts, both personal and historical. Premiering this week on HBO, Matthew Galkin's film is less a portrait than a series of questions, most posed by its subject. For Kevorkian, the process of inquiry, engaging problems rather than ignoring, covering over or refusing to see them.

Of course, the problem forever attached to Kevorkian's name is death, specifically, how to deal with it, as a culture, as a body politic, and as moral individuals. Convicted of second degree murder in 1999, after 60 Minutes broadcast a tape he made, showing his part in Thomas Youk's assisted suicide, Kevorkian had hoped to take his appeal to the Supreme Court, which he calls the seat of "ultimate power in this country." Instead he was sentenced to 10-25 years. Released in 2007, he appears here with a PO who goes over the terms of his parole, namely, that he cannot provide care for any adults age 62 or over, assist anyone in euthanasia, or comment on assisted suicide. When Kevorkian observes," You've got an unelected board, a parole board, that takes away your right of free speech," the officer sighs, "I'm trying to go over what my job is, I'm not going to get into details."

Still, Kevorkian takes every opportunity to point out the flaws in judicial, political, and social systems. When the filmmaker asks, "What are the things you can't talk about?", Kevorkian turns the interview around. Obviously, he says, he's unable to comment on the specifics of the Youk case, then goes on: "Why would I want to discuss it? You know everything about it anyway." The filmmaker presses on, from off camera. And Kevorkian presses back: "Everybody has regrets: that's a dumb question."

But the doctor is not inclined to look back. Instead, the film shows, Kevorkian is using his 2008 campaign to bring attention to the Ninth Amendment, that is, "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." The right to die as and when one chooses is one such right, as Kevorkian sees it, not enumerated and currently denied in every state in the U.S. but Oregon, Washington, and Montana.

As he makes his argument -- in front of town hall assemblies, before law students and faculty at Harvard, as part of a televised debate with his Congressional rivals -- the film provides bits of background. "You can't understand Jack Kevorkian," says his longtime lawyer Geoffrey Feiger, "without understanding the position he held in his family, the son who became a doctor, the son with parents who escaped the holocaust, the Armenian holocaust." And as Kevorkian describes his father's loss of every living relative to the Ottoman Empire's brutality, you see a series of grim images: corpses, skulls, and dismembered limbs.

On its face, this mini-montage illustrates Feiger's explication of Kevorkian's ardent support by his family (Kevorkian's longtime assistant Neal Nichol adds, "They just think he's the greatest person in the world"). At the same time, it alludes to Kevorkian's own intellectual and emotional evolution. "You don't know where you came from, you don’t know where you are, you don't know where you're going when you die," he asserts. "Religion isn't going to explain it, science isn't going to explain it. You’ve got to accept that fact. If you do, then death loses its terror, it's part of life." As such, he argues, death is subject to individuals' choices.

Nichol reports that Kevorkian was initially moved to take up a public position -- advertising his services as a "death counselor" in a local paper -- following his mother's difficult death from cancer (Kevorkian and both his sisters implored her doctor to "help her pass," to no avail). Kevorkian asks his interviewer to imagine feeling the pain of a toothache "in every bone like that constantly." He concludes, "Life can't be tolerable. Anybody would want to die under those circumstances."

At the same time, Kevorkian allows that Kevorkian's self-presentation has inspired a range of responses. During the 60 Minutes interview, Mike Wallace says, "Watching these tapes, I get the feeling there was something almost ghoulish in your desire to see the deed done." While Feiger supports his client's cause absolutely ("We're just talking about the right, not of children, not of mentally incompetent people, but the right of mentally competent adults to make decisions about their own bodies, about how much suffering they had to undergo"), he submits that his decision to defend himself in the Youk case, after Feiger had successfully defended him for 10 years, in 130 cases, was wrong ("There's an inverse relationship between Jack's exposure to the law and the legal processes, and his understanding of what was going on"). Alan Dershowitz, about to introduce Kevorkian at Harvard, cautions, "I'm gonna speak a little bit about how bad you are for lawyers: you fire your lawyers, you argue your own cases, you send evidence to the prosecution." The camera pans over the piles of books, papers, and files filling ever corner of Dershowitz's office, as he concludes, "Everything we teach our students not to do."

From here Kevorkian cuts to a most flattering segment of Dershowitz's introduction, extolling the doctor's "real courage," that is, his rare willingness to "risk your own life, your own liberty for something that you strongly support." Kevorkian is similarly praised by his sister Flora Holzeimer ("I've always envied his brain"), his archivist Ruth Holmes ("Nobody likes to give the credit to the crazy person, but his redemption certainly is going to be written in history"), and Nichol (interviewed before a woodpile and an axe that denote his own earthy wisdom), as well as Jack Lessenberry of the Detroit Metro Times, who says, "Kevorkian is like an Old Testament prophet, who's very disagreeable and hard to take, nobody you want over for a weekend, but he tells us some unpleasant truths," in particular, the truth that death is often painful.

As Lessenberry sees it, "We are a whole country in denial about death... In the 19th century, people saw people die in their homes. But not anymore: it's all antiseptic." Kevorkian repeatedly draws attention not only to this denial, but also to how it is shaped by media. "You're gonna watch a person suffer and keep suffering and dying in agony because somebody's debating this problem?" he asks in a TV interview on courthouse steps. Reframed here, that appearance underscores his own relentless use of media to make his point by asking questions: "There's a problem," he says. "If there's a problem, I implore my colleagues to come forward and do something."


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