By C.J. Hirschfield
October 21, 2022
In the Jewish religion, “LeChaim!” means “to life,” and is the traditional toast.
In 2019, 92-year old Eli Timoner chose death instead, and his journey is recorded in the insightful and moving new documentary, Last Flight Home.
I’ve written previously about the increasing trend in nonfiction films for the director to turn the camera on family members– Circus of Books, Dick Johnson is Dead, and One Child Nation, for example. The pluses include extraordinary access and intimacy. The challenge for the director is to maintain enough distance from the primary subject so as not to “lead the witness,” so to speak. Last Flight Home’s award-winning director Ondi Timoner has two brilliant subjects, in the form of her father, who is clearly a mensch of major dimensions, as well as a sister who is a gifted and sensitive rabbi. There are only a couple of times when director Timoner seems to get in the way of daughter Timoner, including a seminal scene in which she interrupts her sister to suggest that the deep conversation she is having with their father shift into a more positive direction. In another scene, her father is asked how he feels being mic’d up all the time. “I don’t like it” he says, but then quickly adds “but I don’t want to cross the director.” It’s funny, but I would have liked to have heard more about Eli’s thoughts on being filmed at his most vulnerable.
With that said, the film is not only a beautiful tribute to a life well-lived, but an eye-opening account of exactly what must be done in the state of California to comply with its End of Life Option legislation, which was passed in 2016. The law allows a terminally-ill adult to request a drug from his or her physician that will end life. Available in only ten states and the District of Columbia, it provides very specific steps and time lines to be followed that result in deaths that will not be considered suicides. On paper these directives sound dispassionate and simple, but they are excruciating for loving family members to carry out.
The film is divided into a timeline, starting fifteen days out from the final dose that will end Eli’s life. He has been paralyzed for 40 years following a massive stroke, and we learn about what life was like for him before that time: he was a hugely successful businessman and philanthropist, as well as a loving and responsible husband and father. After the stroke there were money problems, and a loss of status and self-worth. His declining health now has him in hospice.
As the countdown to Eli’s death continues, the film gains more emotional momentum, and we are moved by the outpouring of love for this man, and for the way he has inspired others. There are touching moments via Zoom with friends, family, former employees, even a special video message from Rachel Maddow.
The most beautiful scene is that in which Eli’s rabbi /daughter engages her father in the Jewish act of Vidui, a final confession. Eli’s emphasis on what he failed to accomplish in this life is heartbreaking, but later he is able to hear his entire family express their appreciation of who he is, for the inspiration he has provided, and how this equates to success in their eyes.
In his final days, the diminishing yet indefatigable man is still able to tell a hysterical penis joke, as well as provide sage advice to his grandson: “Respect the people you don’t know, and love the people you do know.”
With his adoring family around him, Eli is allowed to pass—on his own terms, and with dignity.
In a later High Holy Day service, rabbi/daughter Rachel Timoner reflected on her father’s journey in her sermon. “We don’t have to wait until our last day to measure our lives by love. What if we begin right now?”
Last Flight Home is playing in theaters across the U.S. including the Opera Plaza Cinemas in San Francisco and the Elmwood in Berkeley.
MTV Documentary Films presents an Interloper Films Production, LAST FLIGHT HOME runs 104 minutes, is in English, and is not yet rated.
C.J. Hirschfield retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good
Ondi Timoner is an internationally acclaimed filmmaker whose work focuses on “impossible visionaries” (and LAST FLIGHT HOME is no different). She has the rare distinction of winning the U.S. Grand Jury Prize at Sundance twice — for DIG! (2004), about the collision of art and commerce through the eyes of two rival rock bands, and WE LIVE IN PUBLIC (2009), about the loss of privacy online through a NY social experiment created by Internet pioneer Josh Harris over the turn of the millennium. Both films were acquired by New York’s MoMA for its permanent collection. Since then, Ondi has created award-winning films/series such as JOIN US, about mind control; COOL IT, about climate change; BRAND: A Second Coming, about the transformation of comedian/author/activist Russell Brand; the 10-hour series JUNGLETOWN, about an intentional community in remote Panama; COMING CLEAN, about the opioid crisis; and MAPPLETHORPE, a scripted film she also wrote and produced about Robert Mapplethorpe starring Matt Smith (she recommends the Director’s Cut on Hulu). Along with her team at Interloper Films, Ondi is currently wrapping a feature doc called THE NEW AMERICANS, which explores the intersection of finance, media and extremism to uncover the explosive and irreversible ramifications of our digital future, and is in production on a feature tentatively entitled ALL GOD’S CHILDREN about Ondi’s sister, Rabbi Rachel Timoner, and her Congregation Beth Elohim’s collaboration with Rev. Robert Waterman and his Antioch Baptist Church to combat racism and anti-semitism. Ondi is an active member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences, the DGA, the PGA, the WGA, the IDA, Film Independent, Women in Film, and Film Fatales.
Nicole Sperling interviews Ondi Timoner for The New York Times.