There is a Hebrew phrase that people often say after someone’s death: “May their memory be a blessing.” It represents different things to different people, but it is intended as an active memory, a way of honoring and extending the virtue of the deceased. Ondi Timoner’s deeply moving documentary, “Last Flight Home”, ends with a version of this phrase. But each scene serves as an example of its many important aspects.
The Timer’s films – including two winners of the Sundance Jury Grand Prix, “Dig!” and “We Live in Public” – tend to be sought after and intense, but no one has ever dug deeper than that. Last year, when Eli’s father was 93 years old and failed quickly, he said he wanted to end his life on his own terms. Because his home state, California, has the Death Dignity Act, he was free to make that choice under carefully defined circumstances. The first of these was a 15-day waiting period – and this is the time Timoner records.
While documentary filmmaker Kirsten Johnson has taken a high-profile approach to her father’s decline at Sundance 2020, which featured “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” Timoner uses a naked, completely simple method. She places a camera in her parents’ living room, where her father is resting in a hospital bed and her mother is silently worried on the couch. And then it starts counting down the days.
On the 15th day, the family reminisces about their life together. Through old home movies and faded photos, we see Eli and his wife, Lisa, as a beautiful couple with three cute little kids. Eli founded Air Florida in 1972 and Timoner shows us in various ways that the company’s motto – “Fly a Little Kindness” – reflected Eli’s lifelong personal ethos.
He was a philanthropist and fundraiser for a number of important causes and, as we learn from his former employees, he aimed to treat everyone in his company with the same respect. Although Eli and Lisa report some serious financial difficulties, their daughter focuses mainly on the positive. If there were rifts between this tight-knit race, we do not hear about them. And here it’s right: This is a film about the impact of a human life, and Odi’s father remains, to the end, an extremely optimistic force.
On day 12, the hostel’s family and heroic nurse begin to evaluate the practical details of Eli’s imminent death, lining up with doctors and discussing medication. A draft obituary is read to him on the 7th day and a meeting with a death ward takes place on the 5th day. On the 2nd day, his grandchildren enter his closet to choose the ties to wear to his funeral.
If this sounds unbearably sad, well – let’s just say it’s probably for the best you can see this movie in the privacy of your own home, with a very large box of tissues near you.
But Eli is the one who really sets the tone and it is revealing to watch how he handles this most humane and humble experience. He can not get out of bed or speak with much force. But he is neither sad nor bitter nor scared. He is clearly grateful for the freedom to choose when and how he will define his last days. When he zooms in with old friends and colleagues, reminiscent of tennis games and business meetings, we can see how the most fleeting moments create memories. When he prays with Odi’s sister, Rachel, a rabbi, we witness firsthand the value of the rituals of generations.
He tells his wrecked wife that he has every intention of going to Paradise, where “he will make a kind of protective shield around your life.” But first, his family plans to do the same for him.
After one of his grandchildren asked him for advice on how to live well, Eli says, “Start with respect for people you do not know and love for people you know.” “Last Flight Home” represents the results of a life already lived by this model. The Timoners’ tiny living room is so full of love for Eli that we can almost see a natural mantle of gratitude, respect and affection surrounding him at all times.
He remains a proud liberal until the end, but despite the controversial nature of California end-of-life legislation, Odi never explicitly introduces politics into the film (although there is a very sweet text by Rachel Mantow). No need. It is difficult to imagine anyone judging Eli because he chose, as Ondi says, “to be careful and aware of his departure.” He also notes with gratitude that this choice is a luxury that many others never have, something that is underlined by the ever-present pandemic masks of his visitors.
Timoner movies are always fun or entertaining, but they also start with an irresistible hook, such as bad-tempered rock stars (“DIG!”) Or hardcore artists (“Brand: A Second Coming”), the biopic Mapplethorpe ”). Here, she invokes her talents and experience to tell the unpretentious story of a man who lived quietly, as a devoted husband and devoted friend and father. Deep in its simplicity, sharp in its honesty and beautiful in its humanity, “Last Flight Home” is the blessing that Eli Timoner won.
“Last Flight Home” makes its world premiere at the Sundance 2022 Film Festival.
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