Main menu


Filmmaker Ondi Timoner tackles medical aid in dying with father's story in 'Last Flight Home'

featured image

Ondi Timoner and Eli Timoner in her documentary “Last Flight Home,” about her father’s final days with family and friends. Photo: MTV Documentary Films

As both a loving daughter and an accomplished documentary filmmaker, Ondi Timoner says the decision to set up cameras and start recording her dying 92-year-old father’s final days at home came naturally, almost instinctively.

“I put a lavalier mike on anyone who was in the room sitting with Dad, and just started filming,” said Timoner (“Dig!” “We Live in Public”) in an interview with The Chronicle in Telluride, Colo. “That way I could bottle him up in some way.”

It was Labor Day weekend, and Timoner had just screened her deeply moving new film “Last Flight Home” at the Telluride Film Festival. It has since been praised widely by critics and tearful festival audiences for its humane, verite account of one close-knit family’s journey through the process of medical aid in dying. The film opens in Bay Area theaters on Friday, Oct. 21.

“Last Flight Home” opens with Timoner’s dad, Eli, a former airline executive and father of three, learning that he is about to be moved from a hospital to a long-term care facility, due to repeated falls and COPD (cchronic obstructive pulmonary disease). He expresses his emphatic wish to end his life, at home and on his own terms.

And so begins the 15-day waiting period dictated then by California’s End of Life Option Act (it’s since been shortened to two), which sets the temporal framework for Timoner’s film.

In its simplicity — one close-knit family coming together to support one man’s end-of-life agency — the film becomes an illuminating, uncommonly frank look at the depths of emotional connection and healing that are possible when a person’s final days are foretold.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Ondi Timoner, director of the new documentary “Last Flight Home.” Photo: MTV Documentary Films

Q: I understand you shot most of the footage in the film for personal reasons, before you even knew you would turn it into a film for public consumption.

HAS: That’s right. I almost made the film involuntarily. At no stage was I actually intending to make a film — even in editing, at first. I was making a memorial video two weeks after my father had died. It was supposed to be five minutes long, and it ended up 32 minutes. The reaction to that video was so profound, with people saying they felt healed by it, or that it changed their feelings about end of life, I thought I should keep going. So it was an almost unconscious process, something I couldn’t help but make.

Q: During those final weeks of your father’s life, did you turn on your cameras simply to capture more of him for posterity?

HAS: It was personal, not to establish a legacy for him. My father was just the most extraordinary person I ever knew. I was terrified to not hear his voice again and to not have his personality around me. It was unthinkable. I thought the earth might open and I might be sucked into it. Facing that unknown was so terrifying that I literally felt like the only thing I could do was take out cameras.

Q: Your film depicts one family’s experience, but it’s also a powerful statement about the need for medical aid in dying, which is legal in only 10 states. How important is it to you to educate people about this issue?

HAS: I asked my sister’s permission (to make the film) because she’s a rabbi in New York. And we all agreed that the right to die with dignity is very, very important. Dad wouldn’t have that right if he lived in New York, where he was born and grew up. So I felt a responsibility as a filmmaker to do something to show this and hopefully help other people.

Lisa Timoner (clockwise from top left), Eli Timoner, Rachel Timoner, Ondi Timoner and David Timoner at Boeing Headquarters in Seattle on Oct. 30, 1979. Photo: MTV Documentary Films

Q: Many people are scared to think about or discuss this issue, so was it tricky making a film that asks people to focus on it head-on?

HAS: The unfortunate reality is that we all grapple with this because it’s the human condition to fear our mortality, and the only way to undo fear is to face it. What’s interesting is that once you do, if you embrace it and you realize it’s part of life, then you can actually unlock deeper aspects of life. It’s always so sad to lose someone you love, but it’s also an incredible opportunity to celebrate who they were and the parts of them living on in us. Fear often deprives us of that opportunity.

Q: Your dad’s sense of humor was intact until the end, and he seemed to effortlessly say such witty, philosophical things. I’ve heard a lot of people here in Telluride say, “I wish I could have met Eli.”

HAS: As I started grieving my father in the Avid (editing machine), it was so amazing to be able to hear what he said to people. Like when his grandson asked, “How do I live in life?”

And he said, “Start out with respect for the people you don’t know and love the people you do know.”

He showed us what it is to be good, with every choice and word out of his mouth. My sister was 19 and at Yale when she came out as a lesbian. He immediately grabbed her hand and said, “I’m so happy you found love.” And that was unusual years and years ago. So I’m overjoyed to be able to share him with so many people now.

Eli Timoner (left), Lisa Timoner, Rachel Timoner, Ondi Timoner and David Timoner at Boeing headquarters. Photo: MTV Documentary Films

Q: One of the film’s most powerful scenes is when your rabbi sister, Rachel, administers a confessional prayer to your dad and he reveals how much shame he’s carried with him throughout his life, especially over his financial failings. It’s beautiful seeing him realize that what matters more is what a great father he’s been and how much he’s loved.

HAS: It’s the moral of the story. When I was with him in his final days, nothing else finally mattered. There are so many distractions in life, bills to pay and all of this noise, but at the end of the day it’s our relationships and who we are to those we love.

That’s why I ended the film at my sister’s Yom Kippur sermon. She’s talking to her congregants over Zoom during the pandemic, and she says, “We do not need to wait until the end of our lives to measure our lives by love.”

“Last Flight Home” (Not yet rated) opens in theaters Friday, Oct. 21.

In-person Q&As with filmmaker Ondi Timoner: 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21. Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema, 601 Van Ness Ave., SF; 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22. Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, 2966 College Ave., Berkeley.; 4:15 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22. The Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael.