Film: Selvmordsturisten

In 1795, William Wordsworth met Samuel Taylor Coleridge. By 1798, the two poets produced Lyrical Ballads, a collection of poetry predicated on private between the two whether Wordsworth’s humanist and naturalist poetry would be received by the poetry-reading public as readily as Coleridge’s fantastic, super-naturalist work. It turned out that Wordsworth’s poetry was the more popular.

How does the poetical work of two eighteenth-century British poets relate to a Scandinavian dramatic film about euthanasia? Well, after mostly losing the bet of realism over fantasy, Coleridge eventually wrote his Biographica Literaria (1817) wherein he advocated that consumers of the arts should actively suppress their critical-thinking skills. He called it “suspension of disbelief”.

Coleridge was not the first to promote this concept, but his phrasing of it is extremely helpful when approaching Exit Plan. Suspending our disbelief allows us to approach things that are exaggerated, sensationalized, distorted or otherwise outside of actuality. Applied appropriately, Coleridge’s “suspension of disbelief” is a tool to understand the difference between documentary film and theatrical/popular film. Our global entertainment industries are founded upon “suspension of disbelief”. Documentary, on the other hand is oriented to engaging our critical thinking – even manipulating it – but not in disengaging it.

Exit Plan deals with subject matter of euthanasia – but it is founded upon “suspension of disbelief.” We must treat it appropriately.

Once we set aside our critical thinking…we are into fantasy-land. Anything is possible in fantasy-land. What is not real is temporarily accepted as real for the sake of the story. In this case, an insurance claims investigator, played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, chases down a mysterious death at a secretive hotel specializing in assisted suicide. Oooh….a dark drama exploring a taboo subject.

Controversial topic? Check. Name-brand actor? Check. Great title? Un-check.

The decision to go with “Exit Plan” as the English language title is questionable. The film’s Danish title, “Selvmordsturisten” indubitably has direct translations that would establish a more appropriately macabre and sinister veneer. Oooh. Dark drama.

If you’re thinking of spending 85 disbelief-suspended-minutes ooohing, aaahing and angsting over a dark drama, Exit Plan offers a story and some quite good videography.

Is setting aside one’s critical thinking skills particularly helpful in exploring a topic like euthanasia? Perhaps and perhaps not. Fiction, whether print, stage or film does let us approach difficult topics knowing that they aren’t real…and knowing the consequences of the fictions also aren’t real. Perhaps, if we are adequately reflective, we can consider our reactions to a film like Selvmordsturisten to recognize our biases when it comes to reality. Did we find it insulting? Boring? Challenging? Moving? Aggravating? Exciting?

An entertainment film like Exit Plan/Selvmordsturisten should give opportunities to reflect on our biases. But it should also drive us back to reality – get back to a humanist and naturalist position to explore difficult issues through facts and reality. We have to set aside the wild imaginings of “death tourism” and explore real issues of assisted death.

A few good places to start include:

  1. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Absolutely Canadian Season 18, Episode 23 Exit Interview: John Hofsess
  2. Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die
  3. PBS’ Frontline: The Suicide Plan

Equally valuable to establishing an understanding of the complex realities of assisted death is to engage the multi-disciplinary professionals and organizations that have expertise in the area. A few examples:

Pegasos Swiss Association is a voluntary assisted dying association that was created in 2019 . Based in Basel, Switzerland, the Pegasos team of professionals offers an assisted dying service to approved adults of sound mind, regardless of their country of origin/ residence. Pegasos enables a person to receive a peaceful, dignified and caring assisted death

The Pegasos website states that the organization was founded following the landmark death of 104-year old Australian ecologist Professor David Goodall.

Image Courtesy of Pegasos Swiss Association

Professor Goodall was not sick. At 104 years of age, he simply said he had had enough and now was the time to go. His eyesight was failing, his mobility was going. Most importantly, he could not do the fieldwork that had sustained and driven him all his life.

The death of Professor Goodall raised important issues for the right to die movement in general, and for the individuals who would become the founding professionals at Pegasos.

Firstly, it showed that a person’s desire for a dignified and peaceful assisted death is not solely dependent on terminal illness. Old age and a failing quality of life can also play a role.

Secondly, David Goodall’s experience showed that the Swiss law on assisted suicide is well placed to serve the needs of people who may not fit the traditional criteria used in other places in the world where assisted suicide is legal.

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