Exit interview: John Hofsess documentary explores assisted death

John Hofsess was a writer and activist who fought for the legalization of assisted dying in Canada. The film 'Exit Interview: John Hofsess' documents his last days and his death. It airs tonight on CBC Television at 7 p.m. as part of the Absolutely Vancouver series.

'We all understand that one day we will die. But I think we still avoid that conversation,' says filmmaker

Exit Interview: John Hofsess depicts the work and last days of assisted-suicide activist John Hofsess (pictured above). (Troy Moth )

Whether or not a person should have the right to end their own life has been debated for years.

John Hofsess was a writer and activist who fought for the legalization of assisted death in Canada. The film Exit Interview: John Hofsess documents his last days and his death.

In 2016, medically assisted death for terminally ill adults was legalized in Canada.

When it was was illegal, Hofsess created an underground death service that helped end the lives of eight people. One of those people was celebrated poet Al Purdy.

The topic of death is hard for many people, but Andrew Calderone, who co-directed the documentary with Troy Moth and Joshua Lambert, told North by Northwest  guest host Grant Lawrence that it's important to talk about it.

"We all understand that one day we will die. But I think we still avoid that conversation and we avoid our exposure to it," says Calderone.

Documenting death

Hofsess was not a doctor, but he did a great deal of research into the field of assisted death, says Calderone. At the end of his own life, he was suffering from a number of terminal illnesses.

After devoting his life to helping those who suffer die on their own terms, Hofsess sought the same ending for himself in 2016 at age 77.

Once his illegal activities were revealed, Hofsess left for Switzerland to end his life with medical assistance.

Hofsess' assisted death was filmed, and was emotional to both watch and edit, says Calderone. 

"I tried never to become desensitized to the gravity and the reality of the fact that this person was leaving his body," says Calderone.

Certain scenes in Exit Interview will have a strong impact on the audience, says Calderone, 

“Working on the project has pushed me to have some of those difficult conversations with my family about each of our wishes at the end of our lives," says co-director Andrew Calderone. The late John Hofsess is pictured above. (Troy Moth)

"To see this person bravely do something as a part of the cause that he was involved in, it was definitely a powerful moment. We're not looking to shock or awe or anything like that … it's just simply a powerful moment in a lifespan," says Calderone.

Shift in passion

Hofsess was active in the Canadian film scene, and co-founded the McMaster Film Board in 1966. He created avant garde films in the late 1960s.

Hofsess' shift from an interest in film to activism and a passion for assisted dying most likely came from his experience with friend and French Canadian filmmaker Claude Jutra.

Jutra was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. He read an early article by Hofsess that favoured assisted death, and asked Hofsess to help him end his life.

Hofsess was not able help him at the time and Jutra eventually jumped from Montreal's Jacques Cartier Bridge.

Five years later, Mr. Hofsess established the Right to Die Society of Canada.

John Hofsess, above, fled to Switzerland to receive medical assistance in dying in 2016. (Troy Moth)

Working on the film has pushed Calderone to have difficult conversations with his family about what they want at the end of their lives, he says.

"I think the ultimate goal when you make something is to get people talking about the things we find important,". 

Exit Interview: John Hofsess is available online and airs on CBC Television tonight at 7 p.m. as part of the Absolutely Vancouver series.

Listen to the full interview:

'Exit Interview: John Hofsess' shows the last days of a man who fought for the right to die. Andrew Calderone tells North by Northwest guest host Grant Lawrence about Hofsess' life. 8:29

With files by North by Northwest. 

About the Author

Laura Sciarpelletti

Associate Producer

Laura is a journalist for CBC Vancouver. Follow her on Twitter: @MeLaura. Send her news tips at laura.sciarpelletti@cbc.ca