Left on Purpose: Filmmaker Justin Schein on the Intricacies of End of Life Choices and Being an Active Witness

Left on Purpose: Filmmaker Justin Schein on the Intricacies of End of Life Choices and Being an Active Witness

Midway through filming a documentary about his life as a radical anti-war activist, Mayer Vishner declares that his time has passed and that his last political act will be to take his own life. Left on Purpose confronts the growing issues of depression, isolation, addiction, and aging through an intense character-driven story providing a rare cinematic look at what it means to be a friend to someone in pain. Filmmaker Justin Schein spoke to GOOD DOCS and discussed lessons to be learned from the film, the complexity of end of life choices and being an active witness.

Since the film was about you in addition to Mayer, give us some insight on the right to die debate and if your views changed throughout the course of the filming process?
I certainly didn’t set out to make a film about the right to die and I don’t know that the film changed my opinion. What this showed me was that the issue of assisted suicide, the issue of suicide is -- even the word suicide -- doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the issue. Somebody who is terminally ill and wants to have that power to end their suffering is different than somebody who is young and depressed and hasn’t sought help and to compare the two doesn’t do it justice. Mayer’s situation was really a slippery slope and I found myself in the middle of this debate where the right to die community in the United States is still fighting for this very basic right for people who are terminally ill, but someone like Mayer, who is dealing with mental illness or depression, really muddies the water of that debate for them. They, for the most part, didn’t want to participate in the dialogue. I had sought them out to talk to them and they didn’t want to participate.

While some of the suicide prevention people were concerned that the film would, in some way, glorify suicide. Now what I did was seek out a person in the community to be an advisor to the film and that was really helpful in trying to get a sense of how to frame it so I didn’t glorify it because that’s the last thing I wanted to do.I could’ve framed the film as an issue film around the issue of assisted suicide and those rights, I think Mayer would have wanted me to, but for me it was more about getting at issues through characters and relationships. It was more about the experience of dealing with such extreme sadness and how does one help someone who is in so much pain. To Mayer, when he said “help me”, it meant “help me die”. Whereas so many people would say to help Mayer we should’ve done this or that and I can promise you his friends and I tried all those things, but there’s no easy answer and that’s part of what I wanted to show. This is a particularly sensitive issue since suicide has become so dire and prevalent in the United States. For men Mayer’s age suicide rates double, particularly white men in their 50s and 60s. It needs to be spoken about, particularly from the point of view of the survivors of suicide, so people know that they are not alone and that there shouldn’t be a stigma attached to it, that’s important to me. I’ve also had many people come up to me at screenings who have had loved ones who made that choice who really appreciated the whole tone and frankness of the film.

Do you feel that the intimate and raw perspective of the film helped to de-romanticize mental illness and addiction?
I certainly didn’t want to romanticize it, but I don’t know if my desire was to de-romanticize it. It’s tough when you’re making a film -- you have to make a film that’s watchable and you have to balance the sadness and the loneliness with humor and a certain lightness. So it was important to show it as it was, but it was also very tricky to get that balance right. My hope in showing the film is showing people this extreme loneliness and sadness that Mayer felt, the darkness of depression that sees everything as bleak. His glass was always half empty. There were so many opportunities for him to seize life and contribute, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. I’ve been very heartened by showing the film around the country and around the world where people have gone through similar situations with loved ones or even their own depression. They’ve expressed a real gratitude for showing this as it happened and not turning it away. It’s very easy to decide you’re not going to make a film about this, it’s not necessarily the first film people go to when they need some entertainment, but I believe that it does have a lot of humor and a lot of heart. It shows an important, very intimate situation that so many people go through.

With the controversial themes that are present in the film, like suicide and addiction, how have audiences responded to the film and what kind of feedback have you received so far?
At some point I was concerned, I expected to get much more criticism than I’ve gotten about the film and my role in Mayer’s life and death; I’ve gotten overwhelmingly positive feedback. It’s not unusual to have wonderful discussions after the film; people cry with their own history and stories of suicide and trying to help loved ones. Occasionally people will ask about what more I could’ve done, but I feel like the film was successful in showing that we did as much as we felt we could, so I’ve gotten very little negative feedback. In some ways I was preparing myself for debates about these issues that haven’t come. While that may make the Q&A at the endless exciting I think that means the film is doing what I hoped it would do.

What do you want audiences to take away from the film -- any specific messages or lessons to be learned? Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you want viewers to understand or think about?
Often when someone takes their own life there are whispers that maybe something more could have been done. That is a difficult burden placed on the loved ones left behind. I hope this film can open the door to a discussion that de-stigmatizes that legacy and lift some of that burden. I also hope the film demonstrates that sometimes being a witness is that best one can do…. that being a witness doesn’t have to be merely passive, but rather is an honorable, active and important role. 

What can we look forward to seeing from you next -- any project you are currently working on?
Yes, I’m working on two main projects right now. One is an offshoot of the Mayer project, often projects open doors to new projects, so I am working on a film about palliative care. Doctor Meier, who was my dad’s doctor and is in Left On Purpose, started the Mount Sinai Palliative Care Unit and I’ve gotten access to film there for the past year. They have a new way of thinking about quality of life in terms of illness and end of life. It’s pretty intense but I think it’s really worthwhile. The other project started with a film I had made 23 years ago about homeless kids in San Francisco. Now I’m going back to see where they are now, a sense of where the course of their lives have taken them.

Olivia Sessions is an undergraduate student at Skidmore College studying Cultural Anthropology. She is passionate about intersectional feminism, the juxtaposition of art and activism, and supporting the voices of underrepresented individuals.