“It’s a scary moment for me because this film is so personal,” says Timoner of the documentary about her father and his final days. “It’s my family at their most vulnerable so, I feel responsible for putting everyone in this position.”
Timoner and her family decided to be in Park City for the film’s Jan. 24 premiere despite the fact Sundance went virtual due to the concerns about surging COVID-19 cases due to the omicron variant.
“We’re having a private watch party,” says Timoner, who won her first grand jury prize for “DIG!” in 2004 and her second for “We Live in Public” five years later; both were later acquired by the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent film collection. “I think the fact that we are all going to be on the couch together answering audiences’ questions will feel really good.”
“Last Flight Home,” a sad yet joyous film about death and family, is Timoner’s eighth feature documentary and one that she happened upon when while writing a fictional film about her father, Eli, and the company he founded in 1972 called Air Florida. She had spent six years writing that movie when his health worsened.
Her father, then 92, was admitted to the hospital in January 2021 for breathing issues not related to COVID. He had been paralyzed on the left side of his body by a stroke at age 53, and while he was able to walk unsteadily with a cane for the better part of 30 years, it became clear after his hospital stay last year that he would no longer be able to do that. He told his family that he wanted to die.
“I never expected to turn the camera onto my family until my father decided to end his own life,” explains Timoner. “It was very shocking that he asked to die and the way he asked was very desperate. It was a turn on a dime because if you knew dad, he was the most tenacious person. He was always hanging on and going to make it through. He was so positive, but he was also very smart, and he knew the writing was on the wall.”
When her father returned to his house in February 2021, he began the mandated waiting period of 15 days proscribed by California’s End of Life Option Act. That’s when Timoner put cameras on her dad and anyone who came to visit him.
“I just decided to set up cameras because that’s all I know how to do to process things,” says Timoner. “I was trying to bottle dad up because I was scared that I wasn’t going to remember how he sounded or his personality. So that’s how it started. I didn’t know that I was making a documentary.”
What the helmer captured is a family of five uniting and supporting one another during their most difficult days. Their love and compassion during the painful process of death is at moments breathtaking.
“We brought our A-game of love, which was so massive for him and for each other,” says Timoner. “Nothing else mattered other than making sure that he was comfortable.”
Both her father, mother and brother were immediately on board with the project. Her sister, Rabbi Rachel Timoner, took a bit of convincing.
“She said it wouldn’t be her preference, but if that’s my mom and dad really wanted then she would support it, which she did,” says Timoner.
Timoner cut together a version of “Last Flight Home” in just two months.
“It literally flew through me,” she says.
Timoner screened a rough cut with a small audience and quickly concluded that her father was a movie star.
“During that screening I started realizing that I’d never had a character in any of my films with whom the audience were able to align as they were with my father,” she says. “People just love him, and that was true in real life, too, but it really translates in the film.”
She originally intended it to be a short doc but reconsidered based on feedback.
“People were telling me that it changed their perspective on death, which is so rarely looked at in our culture, in any kind of healthy way,” she says. “Death is almost always violent in our movies and to picture what might be considered a good death and that it’s even possible is something that we don’t really look at. So, I began to realize how important (the footage) was and knew it could be a feature. It’s meant to be here and it’s going to help people.”
While California’s controversial End of Life Option law is part of the film, Timoner does not consider “Last Flight Home” a political docu.
“What’s more important is that people get to see that there are people that are inherently good and what goodness looks like,” she says. “And that we can all aspire to try to make the right choices in life.”
Exclusive clip below.