Film Review: Winnipeg Free Press

December 12th, 2007

Brad Oswald wrote a review of The Suicide Tourist on November 24, 2007 for the Winnipeg Free Press. Mr. Oswald and the Winnipeg Free Press have been kind enough to grant permission for us to reprint the article below.

Assisted suicide doc powerful, whatever your view“I’VE got death, and I’ve got suffering and death… This (choice) makes a whole lot of sense to me.”

It’s hard to dispute the logic employed by retired computer-science professor Craig Ewert as he explains the hard decision he has made to end his own life. The 59-year-old American is one of the subjects of the stunningly powerful feature-length W-FIVE documentary The Suicide Tourist, which airs tonight at 7 on CTV. Whether you’re intrigued or deeply offended by the notion of assisted suicide, his is a story that deserves to be heard.

In making The Suicide Tourist, filmmaker John Zaritsky (The Wild Horse Redemption, Romeo and Juliet in Sarajevo) spent the better part of the year tracking the progress of two couples as they sought the help of a Zurich-based organization known as Dignitas. Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, but Dignitas is the only agency that extends the option to foreigners.

ImageMost of The Suicide Tourist focuses on the last few days of Ewert’s life, as he and his wife prepare to make the trip from their temporary home in England to the Zurich apartment used by Dignitas to carry out its assisted suicides.

After being diagnosed with a rapidly progressing form of ALS — the crippling motor-neuron affliction also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease — Ewert, supported by his wife and children, decided that it would be better to opt for a dignified death at the time of his choice than to linger in a vegetative state after all his motor functions had shut down.

“I’ve deteriorated enough,” he says. “You can only watch so much of yourself drain away before you kind of look at what’s left and say, ‘This is an empty shell.’”

The key to determining the timeline for his Swiss-assisted exit is the extent of his remaining physical functions. Ewert has already lost the use of his arms and most of the use of his legs, and must breathe with the aid of a respirator. In order to carry out his plan, he must still have the ability to swallow, because Swiss law requires active participation in the process, which involves a lethal dose of prescription sedative.

Zaritsky — a best-documentary Oscar winner in 1982 for his film Just Another Missing Kid — follows the Ewerts as they meet with the director of Dignitas, and later as they consult with the doctor who must assess his condition and motives before providing the drugs needed for the suicide.

He also follows a Vancouver couple, George and Betty Coumbias, who have decided they want to end their lives together. He’s in declining health, having suffered four heart attacks in recent years; she’s completely healthy, but has stated in no uncertain terms that she does not wish to live without him.

Their meeting with a Swiss physician — the same one who approved Ewert’s suicide — does not go well; he rejects their request, stating that even George’s condition is not sufficiently grave to justify an assisted suicide. They return to Canada disappointed but still determined to find a way to die together.

But Ewert’s plan continues on schedule; Zaritsky’s camera follows as he travels to Switzerland and prepares for the end.

“I’m scared,” he tells his wife along the way. “It feels bizarre. Obviously, it’s the first time I’ve ever done this.”

And then he does it, with the help of a Dignitas aide. With his wife at his bedside, and in full command of the decision, Ewert chooses death.

Whether you condone or condemn his choice, it’s undoubtedly one of the most emotional moments you’ll ever see on television.

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NPR: “Suicide Tourists Seek Place to Die”

December 10th, 2007

The Bryant Park Project on National Public Radio has released an interview with John Zaritsky, director of The Suicide Tourist, on their Web site. The 14-minute interview includes audio clips from Craig Ewert, George Coumbias and Betty Coumbias; including the moment of death for Craig Ewert.

Listen to the interview at The Bryant Park Project.

The Suicide Tourist on YouTube

December 9th, 2007

There’s an 11-minute clip on YouTube right now - an interview with John Zaritsky, director of The Suicide Tourist, from Canadian television show The Hour. It includes some footage from the film.

The clip begins with Craig Ewert’s preparation for the fatal dose of medicine - a powerful scene, so please be prepared if you intend to watch. I very much hope that the entire film will be viewable in the United States someday soon, but for right now, this may be your best exposure to The Suicide Tourist.

Watch the interview with John Zaritsky on YouTube.

National Post Review: “My Ventilator is Playing God”

December 8th, 2007

Robert Cushman reviews The Suicide Tourist in The National Post. Thoughtful and balanced, Cushman presents the point that film strikes him as an elegy for Craig Ewert rather than a debate about the right to die.

You can read the review of The Suicide Tourist at The National Post Web site.

The Suicide Tourist in Amsterdam

November 29th, 2007

The Suicide Tourist is showing this weekend at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam 2008 - Mary Ewert, widow of Craig Ewert, will be appearing to speak alongside director John Zaritsky.

The controversy surrounding active euthanasia has often placed the Netherlands at the centre of international debate. So far, people opting for euthanasia are mostly at the mercy of their governments’ official position on euthanasia. Switzerland, however, offers a way out for those who want to end their lives legally and humanely and cannot do so in their own country. There, a lawyer named Ludwig Minelli who founded the Dignitas organisation. Though bound by strict regulations, Dignitas can also supervise the active euthanasia of foreigners. Although the patients using his institute are disparagingly branded suicide tourists in the press, Minelli is convinced that Dignitas reduces the number of violent suicides that are increasingly taking place, notably among elderly people. In The Suicide Tourist, director John Zaritsky chooses an unadorned TV format to depict the gripping story of two couples. The American Craig Ewert, a terminal patient bound to become progressively paralysed, dies on film. A still relatively healthy American couple living in Greece* want to die in each other’s arms, but Dignitas turns down their request. In the meantime, staff members of Dignitas explain what motivates them to do this controversial job.

* Editor’s note: I believe that the Coumbias family is from Vancouver, making them Canadians; and they are of Greek extraction. If I’m wrong I will be happy to apologize and retract my statement.

Comments at the IDFA site include:

Five stars. A gift from the Ewerts for humanity.

When will the rest of the world have the same compassion as the Swiss, Holland, Belgium and Oregon?

A beautiful film of courage, bravery, love, compassion and wisdom. I feel immense appreciation for all involved in the production of this documentary. Ludwig Minelli deserves a Nobel prize for compassion and wisdom. Thank you all who were involved for this gift.

A film which stays with me and stays with me. Five thinking Stars from Peter Wintonick, POV mag.

On behalf of the Ewerts, I would like to say thank you - thank you for coming to see the film, for keeping an open mind, and for understanding the decision my father made. - Ivan Ewert

CTV at 7 PM Eastern Time

November 24th, 2007

CTV in Canada will broadcast The Suicide Tourist on Saturday, October 24 at 7 P.M. EST.

To see details, visit


November 24th, 2007

The Suicide Tourist: A Film by Oscar®-winning Director John Zaritsky

SYNOPSIS: The controversy about a person’s right to die at a time and place of their own choosing has become focused on the Swiss organization Dignitas, and its founder Ludwig Minelli. Dignitas, in Zurich Switzerland, is the only place in the world where a person seeking an assisted suicide can be helped to die, no matter where they are from – and no matter what their state of health. For the past year, Oscar-winning Canadian director John Zaritsky has had exclusive access to Dignitas, and its clients.

In The Suicide Tourist, Zaritsky tells two interwoven stories about suicide: In the first, he follows a terminally-ill man, 59 year-old American Craig Ewert, through the last four days of his life – preparing to leave his adopted home in England for the last time, then on his journey to Zurich, and into the care of Dignitas, with whose help he will end his life. Dignitas – a kind of travel agency to the afterlife – has made all the arrangements. The death will take place in a rented apartment, where a Dignitas employee will prepare a fatal dose of sodium pentobarbital. With his wife Mary at his side, Craig will swallow the poison, and slip quietly into a final sleep. Dignitas will arrange all the necessary paperwork, the body will be cremated, and the ashes shipped home to his family.

In Switzerland, the law says only that suicide must not be assisted for personal gain. Ludwig Minelli, the civil rights lawyer who founded and runs Dignitas, believes the option of a painless and dignified death is a basic human right, and should be legal for all, even those who aren’t ill. The second story in The Suicide Tourist will follow George and Betty Coumbias, from Vancouver, who will test that philosophy, and the Swiss tolerance for a law some say is giving Zurich a reputation for suicide tourism: George has terminal heart disease, and would like to choose the time of his death with the help of Dignitas; his wife Betty is determined to die with him, even though she is perfectly healthy.

Through these two intimate, compelling, and controversial stories, we will understand the difficult choices these couples have made; choices we, or our friends and family members, will be faced with at some point in our lives. The Suicide Tourist will take the audience on a journey they could only have imagined, and will not forget.