Dying, grief and death are concepts that much of Western society has historically tried to pretend don’t exist, much to our detriment. Every day, thousands of people are in their last hours on this mortal coil and yet so many are left unprepared for end-of-life questions about how they want those days to look, families are unsure or unaware of what their loved ones’ final wishes are, and the dying aren’t allowed to decide how they get to die.
In the new documentary Last Flight Home, filmmaker Ondi Timoner (Dig!; We Live In Public) sets out to honor her 92-year-old father, Eli Timoner, and his request to end his life, which he announced to his family over video. Suffering from various illnesses, including congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, he told them, “I just want peace.”
It’s clear, even as he was confined to his bed at home earlier in the pandemic, that Eli Timoner was a warm, lovely soul, lucid, affectionate and cracking jokes with his friends and family. An aviation pioneer, in the 1970s, he founded Air Florida, a budget airline that grew to play with the big guys. Eli was also a philanthropist and during that decade met celebrities and world figures including Prince Charles and then-Sen. Joe Biden. It was a beautiful time with his wife Lisa and their kids Ondi, Rachel and David, until, as the result of a cracked neck during a massage, he suffered a life-altering stroke that left him partially paralyzed at 53.
By his final years, Eli was in considerable pain and was able to utilize California’s End Of Life Option Act, which was not simply or a simple matter of giving someone drugs. At the time of filming, the act required a 15-day waiting period after the patient’s initial oral request to a doctor for medication. Additionally, Eli had to be able to take the drugs himself, even in his immobilized state. Timoner used her unobtrusive cameras throughout the house during those weeks to film, providing glimpses of Eli and Lisa’s lasting love story of more than a half century, and giving the family time to share joyous moments with Eli, say goodbyes and perform spiritual and religious rituals (the filmmaker’s sister is Rabbi Rachel Timoner of Congregation Beth Elohim). It was heartbreaking, moving, instructive and uplifting watching them send Eli off on, as he put it, his “next adventure”.
Timoner, Eli, their friends and family, the doctors, nurses and everyone involved in the process, show in Last Flight Home that if people were allowed to die on their own terms, with dignity were a conviction valued by those in state legislatures, supporting the right to terminate your life would be lawful in more than just the handful of states it’s legal in now. Equally important, the documentary shows that death doesn’t have to be agonizing or something to fear but can be, if not happy, an event that allows the dying and those around them to experience a measure of their own peace.
Last Flight Home, from MTV Documentary Films, was the Winner of the 2022 DOC NYC Visionary Award For Documentary Excellence. It’s streaming now on Paramount+.