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Mademoiselle and the Doctor

by Janine Hosking
First Run/Icarus Films, Brooklyn, NY, 2003.
Video, color, 90 mins.
Distributor’s Website: http://www.frif.com.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


This is a powerful, beautiful, and memorable film. Mademoiselle and the Doctor is not only the story of Lisette Nigot’s voluntary euthanasia but also the story of many others, named and unnamed, who believe in an individual’s right to self-determination in respect of choosing how and when to die.

Janine Hosking has created a provocative and confronting film, which is done somewhat paradoxically in a gentle and sensitive way. The film is in colour, runs for 90 minutes, and features some wonderful background photography and excellent camerawork. Whilst the theme song is good, I think a little more appropriate background instrumental music would have added an extra touch.

The Mademoiselle of the film is Lisette Nigot, a 79- year old academic in apparently excellent mental and physical health, living in Perth, Western Australia. Lisette decided she did not wish to live past 80 and would, therefore, commit voluntary euthanasia prior to her eightieth birthday. Enter the Doctor of the film, Dr. Philip Nitschke, founder and leader of Exit International, an organization that provides information and support for those seeking advice regarding voluntary euthanasia. Lisette’s story is woven into the film and features many frank discussions with Nitschke both prior to and after Lisette’s death.

Lisette was somewhat of a rebel: She never married, lived alone, had no chilDr.en, and pursued a fairly high profile career. She could not handle the way the body deteriorates and the mind, in many cases, stays young. She did not wish to suffer what she saw as the indignities of old age and made the decision to end her own life in a gentle and peaceful way while she was still able to do this. As Nitschke points out towards the end of the film that it was not only the issues of voluntary euthanasia that Lisette’s case raised but the fact that she was a healthy woman with possibly several good years left. Many people, regardless of their attitude to voluntary euthanasia of terminally ill persons, found this action very confronting, given that most of us try to stay alive as long as possible. In Cicardi’s words, "Life will do anything for a living".

Public opinion regarding voluntary euthanasia seems to be polarised into two factions: The majority who agree that voluntary euthanasia for terminally ill persons should be a legal and dignified option and those who are vehemently opposed to it. This film, whilst very much pro-voluntary euthanasia, also shows footage of the incoherent, hysterical protests of the minority––which in most cases is underpinned by fanatical, fundamentalist religious beliefs. "Dr.. Death" and "Nitschke is a new Hitler" are some of the absurd labels applied by these people to Dr.. Nitschke.

One of the most poignant scenes in the film is the story of Max, a very old man, with terminal stomach cancer. He pleads with nurses, doctors, and Dr.. Nitschke to help him pass away peacefully and with dignity. Due to the laws in Australia, these caring, sensitive medical workers can do no such thing. As the film points out, Max’s extreme suffering is directly caused by those who oppose voluntary euthanasia and those who make legislation or overturn existing legislation.

Since this film was made, the situation has changed in Australia. In January 2006 legislation came into force that makes a person guilty of an offence if the person; "uses a carriage service [fax, email, telephone, web site] to publish or otherwise distribute material" and "the material directly or indirectly counsels or incites committing or attempting to commit suicide".1 This new criminal law has forced Exit International to move its web site and operations to New Zealand, where freedom of speech is still allowed! If this film, as it stands, was made now those involved would face heavy penalties and gaol sentences. The film discusses methods, Dr.ugs, and examples of how a person may peacefully and gently commit suicide. In Australia we have the absurd situation where it is legal to kill yourself but illegal to assist in any way other people to kill themselves!

Opponents of voluntary euthanasia (for terminally ill persons with medical safeguards to prevent abuse) usually cite religious reasons why it should be unlawful, or, shy away from reasonable debate by saying voluntary euthanasia is such an emotional issue that we cannot discuss it calmly. Both of these reasons are invalid and have nothing to do with the matter at all. The only issue at stake is allowing another human being the right to self-determination both in life and death.

The definition of a hero is "a person of distinguished courage or performance." This brilliant film gives a glimpse of three such heroes: Dr.. Philip Nitschke, Lisette Nigot, and Janine Hosking. The film will become a classic and a landmark in the humanitarian fight for individual human rights and self-determination.

1. Criminal Code Amendment (Suicide Related Material Offences) Act 2005. No.92, 2005). Australian Federal Government.




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