The Man Behind Terry Pratchett's Suicide Documentary
The BBC documentary, Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die was shown on Monday and has been pissing everyone off. Christian groups, the Daily Mail, and pro-living charities have been talking about the film as though Pratchett had booked their Grandma a one-way turtle to Switzerland. There was even a Newsnight debate devoted entirely to it. In the midst of all this, and in a sea of quotes from Sir Terry on one side and a cartload of life-affirmers on the other, no-one seems to have talked properly to Charlie Russell, the excellent filmmaker who produced and directed the programme about 71-year-old, terminally ill Motor Neurone Disease sufferer Peter Smedley. I tracked Charlie down in Abergavenny, where he’d just managed to find the only place in rural South Wales willing to serve food after 9pm.
VICE: Hello Charlie. Did you intend your film to be so political?
Charlie Russell: No, I don’t think so. I did a film about Terry Pratchett and Alzheimer’s disease a couple of years ago and by the end of it we got on well, even though he called me a “bastard” during a Q&A at the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival. He did the 2010 Dimbleby Lecture about assisted dying and the prospect of doing a film about it arose. At first I was kind of resistant because I didn’t want to be “the Terry Pratchett guy”. But Terry had changed a bit and he seemed more interesting. He was becoming very pro-assisted death and I thought if he actually saw it happen he’d be forced to think about it differently and would find it more morally and philosophically complex.
What's your own take on the film?
Some people have said that the film is like an advert for assisted death, but I genuinely don’t think it was biased. You don’t look at the two characters who chose to die and think, “Hey that looks great, I’ll sign up for some of that”. It’s incredibly painful and difficult. It’s also morally ambiguous. I personally think that the law should change because if you really want to do it you should be able to. Whose business is it other than your own? One of the saddest things to me is that they had to go to Switzerland to get it done.
What kind of change had you noticed in Terry Pratchett from when you first met him?
When I first met him, to make the film about Alzheimer’s, he felt very vulnerable. He was in the very early stages of the disease and my camera was a constant reminder of that. Trust was a big issue, as it is with all documentaries. But in the end he loved the film. I didn’t really know what I was doing when I made it, so it ended up being quite unusual and I think he liked it because of that. From that point on we had his trust, which made it much easier to come back and make the film about Dignitas.
Did you think he’d change his mind about assisted death during the making of the new film?
Yes, and I think he did a bit, too. He was confronted with the humanity of assisted death and because it’s very morally complex he goes back and forth about it, although he’s still firmly in favour of it. Essentially the whole thing is emotional – it’s human not political. I’m a filmmaker not a policy-maker, I want to make human stories rather than have an endless exploration of the arguments.
Are you surprised by how much debate it’s caused?
We were always aware it was a big issue and we had to be careful to do it right. It’s a big issue to the BBC and they’d decided to take it on, so we knew we had to be very sensitive about how we dealt about it. The film is only an hour long so you can’t look at every angle. We wanted to get people to talk about it. We wanted people to be informed.
In documentaries you always get these moments where you wonder what's going through the filmmaker’s mind, and that was particularly true in this film. How did you feel when you were in the room with Peter Smedley as he died?
I felt uncomfortable – well, that’s an understatement. And I felt a deep sadness… We spent three days in Switzerland and that pretty much formed the second half of the film. Everything we shot out there was fascinating. Everything we got we wanted to use in some way. A shoot is never like that. Peter wanted his death to mean something. He believed in assisted death and he wanted his own death to draw attention to the issue.
Did you feel close to them by that point?
We’d got to know him and his wife Christine and they were up for Peter’s death being filmed. At the same time, we made it very clear that it was fine for us to just leave them. We let them know that if at any point they felt as though they couldn’t handle us being there, all they had to do was give us a signal and we’d go. Some things are private. Some things shouldn’t be filmed if the people being filmed aren’t comfortable. But the narrative of the film played out very naturally. You have to compress things and get to the truth but we didn’t have to move events around, it just happened in that sequence and we filmed it. On the last day, the adrenaline was pumping and I didn’t know what was going to happen. We knew that at any moment Peter or Christine might tell us to leave. If that had happened, then that would have been the story.
How prepared were you for what happened, mentally?
I felt a deep sense of dread all day and my sadness was compounded by the fact that Peter and Christine had been so open and emotive. But Peter felt it was important that his death was recorded. I also have experience of filming family members, so I thought "rather me than anyone else filming this" because my priority is not the broadcaster. I’d rather be able to live with myself. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever filmed. In a strange way, though, it was a happy occasion because Peter got what he wanted. After he died, we had a glass of brandy and consoled Christine.
How do you feel about some of the negative publicity the film has received?
It’s difficult. It’s not black and white. I understand why some people are appalled. I think there’s an element of the media that is very keen to bash the BBC. The Mail ran a headline a while ago attacking the film and most of the readers on the website were actually quite reasonable about it. They were generally saying, “Look, Terry Pratchett’s an interesting guy, why don’t we see what the film is like?” The people reading this stuff are not the people generating it. The BBC is not saying we should bring assisted death to the UK. Peter and Andy seem very alive, so it is very difficult to know how to feel about them choosing to die. You feel the loss of both of them. I think it is provoking.
The idea of a “dignified death” and its importance is an interesting one. It seems to be a particular concern for Terry Pratchett. Do you think we are all entitled to a dignified death? Should we be able to control everything, including our own end?
Before I made the film, my grandma died of cancer. She spent two weeks on morphine, got to say goodbye to everyone and was very well looked after. As deaths go, it was a pretty good one. It was natural but there was some control and that was partly why I wanted Terry to do this film, because if not he wouldn’t have been engaging with the emotion of it. Having said that, I will offer this massive caveat: my grandma was OK but some people have horrible diseases that go on for years and years. They aren’t going to get better so why would you make them suffer like that? At the moment, my grandfather, who has Parkinson’s, is in New Zealand without any hope of getting any better. He’ll struggle on but he’s not enjoying himself. The truth is that we’re all going to die and that scares people. Because of that, they don’t want to think about the possibility of actually choosing to die.
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