Nembutal is a Schedule II prescription barbiturate. When used as directed, it acts as a sedative for insomniacs. But in June of 1998, a 76-year-old retiree named Sam Niver took 58 Nembutal capsules and put a plastic bag over his head. He was dead within minutes. The bag was there for backup, in case he vomited up the drugs, but the coroner determined that the Nembutal got to him first.
Niver was seated on the deck of his Snead's Ferry home, overlooking the bay. Two of his three children, Jay and Gretchen, were with him when he died. So was longtime family friend Jay Spain, a Raleigh filmmaker who'd set up two cameras to record the occasion. The scene Spain recorded forms the raw, barely varnished centerpiece of Live and Let Go, a film that won the best documentary award earlier this month at the inaugural Asheville Film Festival.
Sam Niver was a newspaperman, sport fisherman, Army veteran and civic leader, a hearty, plain-spoken man who retired to the North Carolina coast after spending his working years in Ohio. But after a long and happy life, his existence had become sad and difficult. His beloved wife Sweeny died. Then he became terminally ill with prostate cancer. His once vigorous physique withered and bloated. He couldn't eat. The pains came and wouldn't go away.
Although Niver was nominally a Christian, he possessed a strong streak of the stoicism of the ancients. When his life no longer held pleasure or promise, he was ready to die. "I'm not in a hurry to do it," he says in the film, "but when it gets to the point where it's so damn miserable that you don't want to get up in the morning, then it's time to go."
After deciding to kill himself, Niver requested and received prescriptions for Nembutal--from two deliberately uninformed doctors--and he hoarded them. But because he wanted his death to aid the right-to-die movement, he asked his son Jay, a freelance journalist, to make a film about his death. "As a journalist, I knew it was a good story, but I thought it would be more compelling as a film," says Jay, who spoke by telephone from Snead's Ferry where he lives in his late father's house.
While Jay heeded his father's wishes, he wanted the film to be more than a crude visual record. He wanted to have a dignified document of his father's life, one that would serve as an informational film to stimulate discussion of the way we die. He turned to Spain, who has two decades of experience operating cameras for films in the Triangle, from industrials to features. "When he asked me, I said yes without a moment's hesitation," Spain recalls. "He said 'You don't want to take time to think about it?' I said, 'No, you're my friend. You asked me and I'm going to do it.'"
With Spain on board, the team was able to weave in a narrative of Niver's life, one that seemed to hit all the notes of what Tom Brokaw dubbed "the Greatest Generation." Using family photos and museum archives, the film shows Niver from his working class, rust-belt origins to his Army service during World War II to the small Ohio newspaper he took over as editor, reporter, and everything else. He married and fathered three children, and tended to the grill at countless barbecues. "It was a happy life. It was a very good life," Niver says in the film. "It couldn't have been any better except in a few cases where the ribs could have been better done."
Jay's experience of watching his father's painful decline frustrated and angered him, and made him a fervent convert to the right-to-die movement. "It's a two-edged sword," Jay says. "It was cause for minor rejoicing, the way Dad went. But the other side of the sword was that he didn't go peacefully. He had to do it in secret and he had to do it with a bag over his head. And his last words were, 'Give me another rubber band.'"
(Spain notes that assisted-suicide advocates subsequently informed the family that rubber bands were not only unnecessary, but undesirable. "It should have been left billowy," he says, explaining that a loose bag takes longer to asphyxiate its subject, thus giving the drugs more time to act. This information is not in the film because, as Spain puts it, "We didn't want people to come away from the film with instructions for suicide.")
Assisting a suicide is legal in North Carolina in the sense that there are no laws against it. Jay consulted with a lawyer and determined that it was perfectly legal for him to witness his father's suicide, as long as the lethal actions were performed by his father alone. Spain also checked with a lawyer prior to filming the suicide and was assured that he, too, was in the clear. Still, after Niver's death, the filmmakers had to confront deputies and EMTs who arrived at the scene armed with investigative protocols that weren't flexible enough to meet the demands of the situation. Worse, despite the clear evidence of Niver's wishes, the medical examiner insisted on an autopsy.
Winning the award in Asheville was a high point for Jay and his production team, which also includes his sister Gretchen Niver, a Pittsboro artist who served as co-producer, and David Iverson, a Raleigh film editor. (The third Niver child, Teigh, also appears in the film.) It was a sweet moment of validation and Jay made the most of it, repeating his message of death with dignity before the roughly 500 well-heeled guests who were assembled for the awards ceremony. He lamented the plight of Terry Schiavo, the vegetative Florida woman whose parents had just succeeded in restoring her feeding tube with the assistance of Gov. Jeb Bush. "I know I'm on a soapbox here," he finally said with an apologetic smile, "but I don't get a soapbox very often."
The award from Asheville carried with it a cash prize of $500. Not much, in the eternal scheme of movie budgets, but the sum went immediately into the film. "It paid for half of the closed captioning costs, which we have to do for broadcast," Jay says.
And the film indeed will be broadcast next year on South Carolina public television, but with edits. "We'll have to cut away just before he puts the rubber bands on," Spain says. Live and Let Go is also being submitted to the Full Frame fest, but the festival's decision won't be known until next year. In the meantime, the film is being distributed by Fanlight Productions (www.fanlight.com), a social issues-oriented distributor based in Boston. Jay and his partners also maintain a Web site at www.liveandletgo.com.
Jay says that the response to the documentary has been exceptionally positive. "In all showings, there's been one negative reaction, in a focus group. Somebody said we were capitalizing on his death. But to capitalize, there would have to be fame or fortune at stake." Similarly, Jay counters suggestions that the film could be seen as exploitative. "Dad's not here to be offended, and furthermore, Dad wanted the film to be shot," he says.
In short, a film that began production as a witness to a sickly man's self-administered demise evolved into a testament to a life richly lived.
"I'd like to believe Dad would be proud of the fight we're waging right now," says Jay.