It’s not often you’re asked by a loved one to film their journey towards death but that’s a conversation Cathy Henkel had with her late mother Laura Henkel.
“I was very resistant,” Cathy told the ABC.
A veteran filmmaker of 30 years, Cathy is no stranger to working on deeply emotive works.
But the proposition to document the last days of her mother’s life was something she wasn’t prepared for.
It also shocked Cathy’s daughter, Sam Lara, who is also a filmmaker and joined her mother on the project.
The day Sam was told, she went home, got her camera out and recorded a video diary.
“I say in the video diary, ‘I don’t even know why I’m recording this,'” Sam said.
“There were so many difficult conversations happening at that time.”
What came of those conversations is Laura’s Choice, a two-part documentary that follows three generations of women grappling with complicated questions about voluntary assisted dying.
Cathy’s says her feelings shifted as she got more engaged in the discussion on the issue and the experiences of the elderly in aged care facilities.
“So then it became evident that this was actually a really important film,” she said.
“It started to become clear that this was actually a very compelling national story.”
In 2016, an 86-year-old Laura was enjoying a trip around Europe with her granddaughter Sam.
They were visiting some of the tourist attractions in the Netherlands, its beautiful and historic windmill landmarks. Laura had a traumatic fall. and the moment planted the seed of leaving life on her terms.
But at that time, no state or territory had legalised voluntary assisted dying.
It wasn’t until 2018, when 104-year-old David Goodall, a West Australian scientist, decided to travel to Switzerland to access the country’s assisted dying services that Laura began to give it more thought.
Sam describes Laura as a big character who, once she had it in her mind to do something, was near impossible to stop.
Laura had two filmmakers in her family, and a story she believed was worth sharing.
“At the time, we thought, ‘OK, this is something that she’s very passionate about. We can do it,'” Sam said.
“We might make a small kind of family, legacy documents that we have that we can show my children.”
They didn’t imagine it would elicit the kind of discussion around voluntary assisted dying that Laura hoped for.
But with now three states in Australia legalising voluntary assisted dying — most recently Tasmania — Cathy’s inkling this was a national story worth telling proved right.
“[Laura] was an incredible kind of forward thinker in that sense that she could see the value of these conversations and that we should be having them,” Sam said.
“She sort of left Cathy and I with the mission to make sure that they happen.”
How do you edit a film you are in?
The film was the first Cathy collaborated on with her daughter.
“There were a lot of things that were deeply, deeply personal, and things that are ordinarily very private that we had cameras rolling for,” Sam said.
Sam said the process was incredibly challenging, making the grieving process unusual and prolonged.
“But on the flip side, we also were filming during the incredibly beautiful moments,” Sam said.
“So there were some really lovely things that we got to do with Grandma before she died that were all captured on film.”
Editing the film was an experience that Sam says left her with mixed emotions. There were happy moments where she was able to relive seeing her late grandmother laughing, and others that left her overwhelmed with grief over Laura’s passing.
“In a sense, the film also helped provide some closure. So yeah, it was a very mixed experience,” Sam said.
To deal with the emotional toll, Sam and Cathy began referring to themselves as characters in the film.
“You have to find a way to detach yourself to a certain extent,” she said.
Preparing for loss
Cathy said the film helped prepare her for Laura’s death, providing an avenue for her to “say all those things you want to say and do before they go”.
“By the time we got to Switzerland, there was nothing left unfinished,” she said.
Cathy said Laura gave both her and Sam the opportunity to have no regrets; the process meant everything that needed to be said had been.
“So there’s actually not such a feeling of loss. And I suppose also [we’ve had a lot of time together] because I’ve spent the last year making this film and we’ve been in the edit room with Mum every single day,” Cathy said.
“So when people say to me, ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ I really sort of have to step back and say, ‘At this point of her death [it] feels much more of a gain than a loss, what I’ve gained in wisdom and understanding.'”
The experience has left both Sam and Cathy avid believers in documenting the lives of elderly loved ones, to have conversations about their lives and ensure there’s a record of them.
Sam recalls filming Laura, who was a theatre actress, perform William Shakespeare’s The Tempest on stage. It was an opportunity to see her grandmother perform for the very first time.
“I hired a make-up artist and the lighting designer,” Sam said.
“I took my 35-year-old film camera and took photos of her that day. It was such a shared [experience]. I have a love of film photography and she has a love of performing.
“The photos I have of that day are just such treasures.”
Laura last words to her daughter Cathy and granddaughter Sam were: “Make a good movie.”
“Just prior to that she repeated so many times how much she loved us,” Cathy said.
“And that was just really beautiful to hear … I’ll always have that.”