‘An emotional documentary.’ This is how How to Die: Simon’s Choice is described by the gentle introductory voice. It is an obligatory and predictable understatement. More provocatively, others have described it as ‘advertising suicide’. The hour and a half long programme is both humorous and brutal, and usually at the same time. It will include the moment Simon Binner opens the drip which will anaesthetise his life.
While Simon’s family and friends cling on to the ebullient, prolific joker they love, motor neurone disease increasingly deprives ‘Bins’ of the things which he feels are integral to his humanity and dignity. It is hard to hold my gaze as his eyes stare, filled with the knowledge of impending loss. His grandson can no longer understand him, and Simon’s distress at the barrier building between them is painful to witness, as is his increasingly laboured speech.
At the heart of this emotionally wrought and contentious debate is the unresolvable question of whose life Simon’s is. I was initially convinced of an adherence to the principle of bodily autonomy, but I underwent the same realisation as Simon himself. Other lives are intertwined and knotted with his. He reconsiders his decision to go to Basel and makes it through several stages he had considered to be too humiliating to countenance with a resilient humour. His wife Debbie believes that he can carry on if he sees that he isn’t a burden and still has a right to enjoyment. It is only when he attempts to hang himself that those around him must undergo a painful emotional turn of their own. Being trapped inside his own body with no means of communication is a future Simon cannot bear. 330 MPs voted against the assisted dying bill which was going through the Commons at the time of filming. I wonder how those 330 MPs would vote if they thought that this might be their future.
Despite everything, my lasting impressions of Simon lie not in a hospital bed, but in the beautifully expressive scenes which encapsulate the life Simon and those around him enjoyed and which he refused to relinquish to his disease. Notepad messages showed mounting despair, but Bins was still fooling around at a games party, being hurled about in a wheelchair. His email invitation was predictably hilarious – a friend was appointed to the ‘high office’ of CBTO: Chief Bins Transportation Officer. This is still recognisably the man an older clip showed dancing in the kitchen, partnered by his dog.
Everyone will approach this documentary differently and with pre-formed notions through which the emotional turmoil will filter. To criticise any opinion on the subject would be crass. Perhaps the only judgement we can make of a documentary of this type is whether the stories it captures open a space for renewed and re-invested thought on all sides. Simon’s Choice does this and, although many viewers will shed tears, they will have been glad to have met Simon.
Image courtesy of The Guardian.