I’m Here Now (Documentary Review: “End Game”)

endgamePOSTER

A contemplative and elegiac documentary that celebrates life through the lens of palliative care . . . a surprisingly uplifting experience shared by patients, their families and the care-givers who shepherd their last journey together.

SnapShot Plot

I had an interesting conversation with a doctor recently who had just come off a long shift at the hospital – just one of several decades of long shifts at the hospital – and when I sardonically asked him if anyone had died that day, his retort struck me. He simply smiled and said, “Nobody dies anymore.” I took that to mean that we have gotten to the place where medical technology and a modern healthcare system, mixed with the sheer hubris of humanity has made for an industry that has excelled at keeping death on the other side of the door. In the moving documentary, End Gamethat door is opened carefully, gently and respectfully by the varied professionals whose entire careers are dedicated to end-of-life care for the terminally ill.

The short 40-minute film, shot in San Francisco in the intimate vérité style, focuses on 4 patients and their families in both a hospital setting and a downtown hospice center. In both locations, what rises to the surface is first and foremost an unyielding respect and affection for the patient, by collaborative teams of doctors, nurses, social workers and aides, each of whom addresses their attentive care to whomever is there to accompany that patient in this last chapter of life. One family is featured centrally in the film, that of a young woman named Mitra whose loving husband, young son, mother and sister are a constant presence at her bedside. We are witness to the almost palpable pain emanating from the screen as we feel their confusion over decisions relating to after-death protocols while at the same time praying for a miracle. We also observe the communal level of care shown to them by the hospital staff as they are brought into meetings and discussions, never to be boxed out of their loved one’s case simply because the end game is a foregone conclusion.

Each of the stories is heartbreaking. Yet there’s still humor. There’s still joy. As one of the patients, Thekla (herself a nurse) said to Dr. BJ Miller, “You gave me an assignment. You told me to make friends with death. I have failed the assignment. I love to live.” That prompts a meaningful conversation between doctor and patient about the kind of relationship she might have with death, and as he puts it, “It doesn’t have to be friendly at all.” He goes on to describe a dynamic which is less frightening than it needs to be. And he then gets very specific about the phenomenon of dying, which – strangely – emerges as one of the most comforting things anyone could think to say in that moment. It’s just one of the many takeaways that make End Game mandatory viewing.

 

 

Parting Shot

Created by Academy Award winning filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Times of Harvey MilkCommon Threads: Stories from the QuiltThe Celluloid Closet) this is that rarest of films whose subject matter couldn’t be more tragic or sad, yet leaves us feeling comforted, even uplifted by the time it’s over. You’ve heard that classic one-liner (attributed to George Washington), “Dying is easy, living is harder.” Instead, what seems to emerge as the thesis statement of End Game (and why this little film should be curriculum for all palliative care-givers) is just the opposite. It’s telling us that the fight for life is a valiant one. Yet even as we stare into the gaping abyss, we can still feel the warm embrace of life until that very moment when it transforms itself, becoming an even warmer embrace of death. And that no matter the journey, we are still very much ourselves, here and now.

End Game is presently streaming on Netflix.

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YouTube Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FgJD6ksdkWY

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