In a haunting episode of Louis Theroux’s latest documentary series, the veteran filmmaker tackles the delicate subject of death more intimately than ever before.
And this is a guy who’s experienced life-threatening violence close and personal in hotspots like Laos and Johannesburg.
In an episode of his BBC series Altered States called “Choosing Death”, the British journalist goes to California, one of the seven states in the US where it’s legal for doctors to prescribe death-inducing medication to terminally ill patients.
Enacted in 2016, the California End of Life Option Act allows state residents to resort to medical aid to terminate their life under specific circumstances. The patient must be an adult with his mental faculties intact who is expected to die of a terminal illness within the next six months. The patient must also be capable of administering the lethal dosage themselves.
In “Choosing Death”, Theroux gets close to several individuals who have already decided they want to die.
A moving and fascinating documentary about terminally ill patients who are choosing death. @LouisTheroux's #AlteredStates, tonight at 9pm on @BBCTwo: https://t.co/yN5kBoqfvq pic.twitter.com/t2AEjc5Iwg
— BBC Press Office (@bbcpress) November 18, 2018
Theroux has been both praised and criticised for his particular approach to documentaries. He is somewhat of a specialist exploring the topic at hand from the perspective of the subject, immersing his presence in the lives of his characters. This filmmaking style is based on the emic school of field research, which is used by anthropologists when studying language and culture.
The journey in “Choosing Death” is so gut-wrenching that Theroux commits the capital sin of documentary filmmaking, which is to attempt to alter the events that are being registered. At one point in the episode, he can’t keep himself from trying to persuade one of his subjects to not commit suicide.
The episode provides a touching, painfully human perspective on the taboo subject of euthanasia; it’s so striking, it may be one of Theroux’s best documentaries yet.
“I think sometimes I may lack a certain level of emotional self-knowledge,” he told Michael Hodges for RadioTimes.
“Occasionally I get surprised when emotions come at me unexpectedly.
“But, for the most part, I’m unscathed. It doesn’t traumatise me. I see something extraordinary, I’m part of a very powerful, upsetting scene in which someone is dying, or expressing a deep sense of mental anguish, and then I go home, put my kids to bed and kiss my wife.”
The events he witnessed are so prescient and striking, they caused Theroux to reflect over his own mortality and that of his now-separated parents, BBC World Service producer Anne Castle and American travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux.
“They’re getting on a bit,” Theroux said. “Dad’s 77 and Mum’s 76, but I haven’t talked to them about it. They’ve both been lucky, to still have 99 per cent of their marbles. Perhaps I should be thinking about that.”
Does Theroux himself have a plan if he found himself in the same situation?
“I don’t. And I should. I feel, maybe naively, that I’m 48, and I’ve got three children, the youngest is four, so that all seems quite far off.”
Altered States is available online through BBC’s iplayer.