Laura’s Choice Review – One of the Towering Achievements of Australian Documentary Filmmaking

Laura’s Choice screens on ABC Australia, Wednesday March 17th 2021 at 8:45pm, and also on iView.

In August 2006, I travelled with my Grandfather to his home country of Scotland. Together, we drove across the land, catching up with his sisters and relatives, driving through the ‘other’ Perth, visiting the top of Scotland, and even catching a glimpse of the ultra-Mel Gibson-looking William Wallace that carried a bemused look on its face that said ‘yeah, I can’t believe it too’. We visited the Scottish Parliament House, and ate baked potatoes with haggis for lunch, something that was better than I expected. In the streets of Edinburgh, my Grandfather walked me to the point where my Grandmother had slipped on the cobblestones and broken her hand years earlier, leading her to have countless surgical procedures that resulted in the removal of her middle finger. 

Over the few weeks that we were there together, my Grandfather walked me through the history of his life in Scotland, telling me the troubles of growing up during World War Two, where his frustrations of being just a couple of years too young to fight kept him out of the battles, all the while buildings crumbled under the bombing raids of attacking forces. It was a moment of bonding that you often read about happening to ‘other’ people, just like you’re reading about it happening to me now. 

I remember the discussions we had about the history of Scotland, where we talked about the complexity of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the lineage of the monarchy, where we discussed the pride he felt at exploring the world and working under the wave of the Union Jack. The trip was a history lesson of Scotland, allowing me to fully appreciate how my Grandparents found each other and started their life journey together. 

Years later, after my Grandmother passed away, at a nondescript family event, my Grandfather probed me and my ex-wife about the best way to end his life. There was little warning that that’s what he would ask, with him springing the question when the rest of the family had gone inside to tend to other tasks. He’d grown tired of life, and as he lived alone, with no companions to while his time away with, he found himself contemplating a finality that escaped him. The signs of depression were there, and while discussing with him what he wanted from life, I ended up with the notion that maybe finding a canine companion to keep him company might lift his spirits. Sure enough, when a suitable pup came along, his life carried a purpose and he was encouraged to engage in activity. Outwardly, he had been given a boost, but it was merely a salve for the ensuing decade, as each of my discussions with him were tinged with that notion that he had lived a full life, and that he was finding it harder to shake the tiredness and oncoming degradation of the body and the mind.  

We talked about wanting to visit Scotland again, which he did with family, and about the past and the future. It wasn’t the only thing on his mind, but when I was with him, he felt comfortable enough to be open about his worries and mental woes. I’m grateful that I have been able to give him that kind of salvation, but now, in 2021, with my Grandfather disappearing into the realm of dementia, I can’t help but think of the farewell that he might have had if he were afforded the opportunity to engage in voluntary assisted dying. 

If I’m being completely honest, I don’t think my Grandfather would ever have followed the path to engage in voluntary assisted dying, but I know that he would have found great comfort in having the option to engage in the process. I won’t go into detail, but I know that he had researched how best to end his life if he so decided, and had discussed with me about what I thought. He often confided in me the desire to just, pass away in his sleep, but he was well aware of the rarity of that occurring.  

As a Grandson, it was a complex situation to be in, but I felt the trust and understanding that my Grandfather had in me had afforded him the space to explore these ideas. I certainly was never going to judge his thought pattern, or condemn his exploration of the notion of ending his life. I know I personally have considered this more than most people my age might have. 

As time went on, my Grandfather reduced the amount of times he would talk about ending his life with me, something that I’ve now grown to realise was merely because his mind was disappearing. At times, I felt alone in this deeply personal experience. While I brought up the subject with family, I’m not sure we ever had the toolset to actually approach what my Grandfather was experiencing properly.  

Then I watched Laura’s Choice

This beautiful, compassionate, funny, and life affirming documentary follows Laura Henkel, her daughter Cathy Henkel, and Laura’s Granddaughter, Sam Lara, as they together share the journey of guiding Laura onto the path of voluntary assisted dying. Laura is flanked by her family and friends who all support her journey, even if they initially struggle to reconcile with her decision. Additionally, we, the audience, are trusted by Laura to employ the empathy we all should carry, to understand and appreciate her choice, and to have our traditional notions of what death and dying means in our world of extended mortality.  

At once, Laura’s Choice begins with Sam and Laura heading to Europe to embark on a cruise and visit destinations that Laura had long dreamed of visiting. Sam follows in her documentarian mothers footsteps with ease and comfort, immersing herself into the realm of the eternal observer, capturing footage of Laura living a full life, exploring the sites, and making friends with everyone she meets. This was never intended to be the prelude to a story about a Grandmother engaging in the process of voluntary assisted dying, but in many ways, it’s the most appropriate manner of introducing this narrative.

We get to experience the joy of Laura’s life, with her living out the dream that we all appear to be working our whole lives to achieve: we overwork ourselves in 40-plus hour weeks, just to have enough money to one day retire and travel the world, with energy drained bodies and looming fragility. Sam’s youthfulness buoys Laura’s spirits and drive, and it’s in these early moments that we get to see how supportive, inclusive, and all-embracing Laura is as a person. Each moment in her life is an opportunity to create a shared memory, an experience to remember.

However, the joy of a holiday together is fleeting, and in one of the most powerful moments of documentary cinema that I’ve ever witnessed, we experience the breadth and lightness of unbridled joy as Sam puts the camera in Laura’s hands, pushing her on her mobility aid walker, and running together with no worries in the world to bother them. Immediately, we’re smiling, laughing, and full of every ounce of joy that life should bring, and then, in an instant, the camera falls, tumbling with Laura onto the pavement. Laura is left injured, with this moment of tragedy becoming one that is clearly difficult for Sam to grapple with as it effectively brings an end to their trip, and hastens the otherwise gradual effects of ageing for Laura.

Documentary filmmaking is rife with these kinds of scenes, where the unexpected occurs as the camera’s rolling, and life changing instances take place. These moments can’t help but colour what comes after, and here, our anxiety and stress, and concern for both Sam and Laura’s health and mental state, becomes elevated. Sam’s ownership of the accident is painful to see, but the continued presence of Laura as the comforting Grandmother eases some of that discomfort. 

This resulting film is not the one that Sam intended to make, nor is it one that Cathy ever expected to make either. When Laura returns to her home in NSW, on the other side of the country from her daughter, she finds her life changed, and the reality of what’s to come with the ageing process sinks in. She calls Cathy, asking her to come visit, with the intention of ending her life when Cathy arrives. This discussion felt all too familiar to me, with Laura outlining what she would do, and Cathy, patiently and rationally talking her mother out of that decision. 

The moments of my Grandfather and I discussing what he had read, and talking about trying to acquire Philip Nitschke’s contraband-adjacent book, The Peaceful Pill Handbook, in Australia, came flooding back. As Cathy assists Laura in exploring the possibility of voluntary assisted dying, I yearned for that kind of open discussion with my own Grandfather. As shown in Laura’s Choice, and as I know would have been the case with my Grandfather, it is not about guiding a loved one down the enforced path of voluntary assisted dying, but rather about encouraging and opening up the possibility of discussion about the process.

Cathy and Sam frame the continued narrative of Laura’s journey with scenes of a bonding session between mother and daughter on the family couch, reflecting on their shared experience of supporting Laura via a deep and meaningful discussion that gives each other the breathing space to decompress. I’m beyond grateful for these scenes, especially in the manner that they each provide the other a judgement free space to share their feelings. For some, these moments may be akin to those of a therapy session, but therapy sessions often come with the notion that they are private and enclosed, and of service to the patient alone. What these moments between Cathy and Sam do is encourage the viewer to find the space and empathy within their own family to discuss these difficult subjects without judgement.    

Naturally, this is not always possible, with each family member having their own lived-in journey that will inform how they engage with these topics, and additionally, how they engage with their family members, but I would hope that through Cathy and Sam’s combined compassion and empathy that viewers will be given some aspect of encouragement to approach these subjects within their own family and friends circles. 

As we hear along Laura’s journey, for the people who live in countries where they have a choice and control over when they can peacefully end their life, they invariably choose to have a longer life, knowing that the option is there. Yet, for those living in Australia, the only choice regarding end of life decisions that is currently available in some states, is in relation to how much ‘suffering’ the ‘patient’ is undergoing, and whether their life expectancy is less than six months or not.   

For Laura, the decision to enlist Cathy and Sam in the process of making a film about her choice was clear: she intends Laura’s Choice to be a fire starter, a call to action that should help bring about a much needed discussion regarding end of life care in Australia. While many states have already implemented voluntary euthanasia laws, there are regions like the Northern Territory and the ACT where they are still waiting for the federal government to allow them to reinstate the right to make voluntary euthanasia laws. And even with these laws in place, there are reasonable arguments that they have not gone far enough in giving people the right to die.

During filming of Laura’s Choice, Sam and Cathy collectively took part in the protests at Western Australia’s Parliament House, where hundreds of people made their voices heard about the need for the right to die. Voluntary assisted dying advocate and activist, Belinda Teh, appears, having reached the steps of Parliament House after walking 3,500 kilometres, having made the journey back to Perth in the name of her mother, who had a difficult and agonising final hours of her life. Sam comments on the amount of older people there were at the rally, a vast difference compared to the often youthful protests that have continued throughout the streets of Perth over the years. It’s clear that for the ageing, the prospect of a difficult, complicated, or traumatic death lingers on their mind.   

I am loathe to bring up this comparison, as I can understand the connotations of a person, or persons, being the deciding figure in whether someone lives or dies, something that voluntary assisted dying actively removes, but from my years as being a Veterinary Nurse, I often heard from owners who were bringing their animal companions in for euthanasia that they wished that we were able to have this option for ourselves. The term ‘quality of life’ is used across the board when it comes to deciding whether an animal has neared the end of their life or not, and while that differs from person to person, the reality is that the human companions are often pushed into a difficult position when deciding to release their animal companion from whatever ails them. In my eight years of nursing, I only encountered one animal, a twelve year old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, who had passed away in their sleep. The rest, unfortunately, were assisted along. 

Yet, animals don’t have the autonomy or agency that we do. We have to make the decision for them. For humans, we often don’t have that luxury, which is why Laura’s Choice is all the more powerful a film. For humans, we lament the fortune of people who pass away during their sleep, calling them ‘lucky’ for having a ‘peaceful’ death. We live in the 21st Century, we shouldn’t still be going through these immense struggles just to die with dignity. 

Our notion of dying has been coloured by the realisation that it is often a drawn out, painful, agonising process, as this is the reality that many of us go through. Yet, Laura allows us to witness her passing, and it’s a great comfort to see how peaceful and calming her death is. While much of the footage is captured by Cathy and Sam, additional cinematography is provided by Mahmudul Raz in Perth and Patrick Wally in Switzerland. Patrick Wally’s drone shots are masterfully employed alongside the powerful score by Nicolette Boaz as we near Laura’s final moments, with the aerial twilight shots of the Swiss countryside influencing the peaceful death that is soon to come. This is not a difficult, or complex death, it is dying with dignity, and for this alone I am grateful that Laura trusted us with allowing to see her passing. 

While viewers may fear that the machinations of voluntary assisted dying might open up vulnerable people to exploitation, Laura’s Choice seeks to assert the rules that are firmly in place to stop any possible nefarious manipulation of the process. We are afforded the ability to experience every step of Laura’s journey, from the doctors’ appointments to verify that Laura is of sound mind to make the decision to end her life, to the actual process of dying itself. 

And yet, while everything I’m writing about, and everything that Laura’s Choice details on paper, suggests that this is going to be a maudlin, depressing, and traumatic affair, the reality is quite the opposite. Laura’s Choice is continually entertaining, occasionally hilarious, and deeply humanistic. This is one of the finest examples of empathetic filmmaking ever, and immediately stands as one of the towering achievements of Australian documentary filmmaking. I am quite certain that I will never seen another film quite like Laura’s Choice, and I’m forever grateful for having the experience of getting to know Laura Henkel.  

Laura’s dream of being an actress was sidelined throughout her life, and while she sought an audience in friends, family, and strangers, she was never truly encompassed by the title of being an ‘actress’, and in one of the most uplifting and inspirational moments in Laura’s Choice, Sam gives Laura the celebration of the theatre that she so often craved in her life. With a looming date circled on the calendar, Sam organises a photo shoot with Laura, putting the spotlight on her and making her the star she should always have been. While there is frequent levity in Laura’s Choice, this moment of celebration for Laura reminds us that we need to create moments and memories now, rather than when it’s almost too late. 

The same goes for the life celebration that takes place just before Laura embarks on her final journey abroad. It’s almost become a trope in the manner that people talk about wanting to have a funeral before they die, a farewell party for the ‘guest of honour’, yet we rarely ever do it. In Kristen Johnson’s essential documentary, Dick Johnson is Dead, Kristen presents a fictionalised funeral for her father, an act that has far too heavy an emotional toll for Dick’s friends. Here, Cathy and Sam organise a Mad Hatter’s tea party farewell for Laura, where each attendee is given a book from Laura’s collection to take home, as well as a photo of Laura herself, and the memories and celebration of Laura’s life is allowed to take place with Laura there to experience it. 

If you’ll allow me a moment of introspection, I personally feel that the notion of having an event where my friends and family corral around a coffin and talk about my life in a past tense sounds, well, morbid. And it is morbid, but I don’t want my life to be defined by morbidity. I’ve lived a full life, and I’ve lived it with purpose and value and importance. Just as Laura lived a full life, and just as you lived your own life. It’s not egotistical or self-satisfying to say that I want to be celebrated while I’m here, and I want to be celebrated with my friends and family when I know that my time is coming to a close. 

If there’s one aspect of Laura’s Choice that I hope all viewers take away with them and implement into their own lives, it’s the celebration of a life lived with the person themselves there to bathe in the adoration, respect, love, and joy that they should be adorned with as their time come to a close. Seeing Laura’s smile, and the warmth that emanates from her at her celebration, shows how important that moment was to her. It was the reminder of the greatness her life has brought, and the meaning that she brought to those around her. It’s only human to desire that kind of affection from those we hold near to our hearts. 

It’s clear that for each moment in her life, and with each encounter she has, there is always an opportunity for Laura to make a new friend, and in many ways, when she calls on Cathy to document the voluntary assisted dying process, she is embarking on her final act of making new friends. Yet, this time, the friends she makes are ones she will never meet: us, the audience.

I write this knowing full well that both Sam and Cathy will likely read this piece, and I take solace in knowing that this journey for them both, has been, and will likely continue to be, a difficult one. To have someone, a relative stranger, albeit one that they have both discussed the film at length with, sit here and critically assess their filmmaking, and conceivably, their ‘life’, presents a potentially unsettling prospect. Yet, as I mentioned to them both in my interview with them, all I hope is that Cathy and Sam are both ok. Through Laura’s Choice, we are invited into their family in a manner that feels wholly inclusive and all embracing, and I do hope that my words here have empowered the strength of the film and of Laura’s invitation to experience the breadth and enormity of her choice. 

Yet, I also write this knowing the immense gravity that comes with allowing an audience of strangers to experience a deeply personal journey, albeit one that is tinged with controversy, misinformation, and heightened community attention. And with that in my mind, I’m forced to turn to the form of dialogue I have with you, my trusted reader, a humble piece of film criticism. 

I often hear from younger film critics that they struggle with reviewing or writing about documentaries, and I often wonder if it’s that they might find difficulty in writing about, or critiquing, the ‘real life’ that’s presented in a documentary. Yet, if I were to give some guidance in this review, it would be for those writers, and for the viewers of films like Laura’s Choice, to find that personal connection with the material, and to find themselves in the story. And then to also explore Cathy’s choices and Sam’s choices as directors, as filmmakers, and as people, wanting to tell an empathetic and moving story. 

I opened this review by talking about my Grandfather, one Ian Jamieson, a person who I love deeply, and who has taught me more about life and living than I will ever truly understand. I know his time on this place we call Earth is getting shorter every day, and yet, I also know that he wouldn’t want me to hang onto the sadness of his passing. Instead, I will hold onto those moments we spent together in Scotland, or when we would watch movies at the drive-in theatre in Busselton, or the subsequent enthusiasm that he had in retelling the absurdity and madness of Jim Carrey’s The Mask for years after watching it, or listening to his passion for geography and the different landscapes around the world. This brilliant man, this kind soul, deserves celebration, and he also deserves dignity. 

We all do. 

Roger Ebert talked about cinema being the greatest empathy machines out there, and there’s no deeper proof of that in action than with Laura’s Choice. While this is a ‘call to action’ film, this is, oddly enough, a proudly entertaining experience. It feels odd, and possibly disrespectful, to say that, but the truth is, I know that I will be finding comfort in Laura’s Choice again in the future. Comfort in knowing that Laura was able to die with dignity, and that she had the support and love of her family to do so. I will find comfort in the compassion, and the strength of Cathy Henkel and Sam Lara to tell this story. I will find comfort in knowing that there are people in the world who recognise the need to celebrate those we love, and to honour them with dignity. 

This is not easy filmmaking, but nor should it be. While Cathy is already established as an excellent filmmaker, it’s clear that with her guidance and support, Sam is going to be an equally powerful filmmaker in her own right. It feels absurd to be talking about the quality of the direction here, especially at the close of this ‘review’, but I do so in a way to say that this almost transcends the notion of what directing a documentary is. Together, Cathy Henkel and Sam Lara have created a powerful bond between one another as filmmakers, and as mother and daughter. 

I want to thank them both for introducing us to the majestical Laura Henkel. I want to thank them both for their vulnerability, and for their strength. I want to thank Laura for trusting us with her story. And I want, for us all, to have the right to die with dignity. 

Directors: Cathy Henkel and Sam Lara

Featuring: Laura Henkel, Cathy Henkel, Sam Lara   

Score: Nicolette Boaz

Cinematography: Cathy Henkel, Sam Lara, Patrick Wally (Switzerland), Mahmudul Raz (Perth)

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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