The enduring legacy of Laura Henkel will be brought into focus this week via the work of her descendants as Cathy Henkel and Sam Lara’s documentary Laura’s Choice premieres on the ABC.
Told across two nights, the documentary explores the family experience of the three generations of women coming to terms with Laura’s wish to end her life on her own terms.
Developed through Virgo Productions, in collaboration with Factor 30 Films, the documentary was produced by Lara, Cathy Henkel, Ryan Hodgson and Melissa Kelly, with Chris Haws on board as executive producer.
The project has already received acclaim through its development, both locally and nationally, having been awarded the 2019 Brian Beaton Award and last year’s inaugural Hot Docs prize at the Australian International Documentary Conference.
AIDC screened Laura’s Choice this year, prior to which it was shown at the Revelation Perth International Film Festival.
Henkel told IF the ABC’s initial interest in the project made it the “perfect platform” on which to be shown.
“When we pitched this at the 2020 AIDC, the ABC approached us and said they saw this as a national conversation piece and commissioned two one-hour [time slots], which is quite a substantial take for this topic,” she said.
“We’re getting interest from Radio National and even ABC Classic played the music from the film on Monday, which was a delightful moment.”
Laura’s Choice picks up in 2016 when, at the age of 86, Laura decided to go on a river cruise in Europe with her granddaughter, Sam, and fulfill a childhood dream of visiting Vienna.
However, after a harrowing fall followed by a life-threatening case of pneumonia, Laura returns to Australia with a transformed view of her future.
She tells her daughter Cathy that she wishes to set the time and place where her life will end, and be allowed to go with dignity.
Initially, she plans on doing this in her home in Ballina NSW, but after hearing about a clinic in Switzerland where her right to do this with her family by her side is legal, she begins the process of applying to the clinic online and tells her daughter and granddaughter she’d like them to be with her in her final moments.
She also asks them to make a film about it, with the aim of contributing to the national and international dialogue about end-of-life choices for the elderly
It’s not the first time Henkel has worked with her mother on a project, having written and directed the 2003 documentary, The Man Who Stole My Mother’s Face, about her search for justice for the elder Henkel following a traumatic sexual assault.
She said the experience had allowed her mother to see the potential of documentaries to spur discussion.
“She saw the power of that film and the way it provoked conversation about sexual assault and victim blaming,” she said.
“I’m not sure at what point she was cooking up the idea for the film but I initially thought I would humour her by making a short tribute piece and that the footage of her saying she wanted to end her life in Ballina would not be seen by anyone.
“But as we progressed and she became more determined, Sam and I started to realise this was much bigger than mum’s story and had a far greater reach.
“We came at it fairly reluctantly and it was only really in September 2019 when we won the Brian Beaton Award and people were encouraging us to make it that we realised it was a much bigger film.”
Laura Henkel is set to be central to the conversation about end of life choices for the elderly going forward in the form of an online discussion forum.
Launched in conjunction with the premiere of the documentary, lauraschoice.org will not only feature a link to the film but also ‘Laura’s Kitchen Table’, where people can log in and share their stories while also asking questions about the film’s subject matter.
Lara said the idea came during the filming process.
“Laura wanted us to interview people who maybe didn’t share her views so we ended up talking to a rabbi, a buddhist, an Indigenous elder, a member of the Islamic community, and a doctor who was opposed, among others” she said.
“The rabbi said to us that, ‘The world is not changed so much by wars, legality and protests as it is by conversations around the kitchen table’.”
“As part of that, we have created a virtual kitchen table.”
A physical version of the initiative will also occupy gallery space at Edith Cowan University’s Spectrum Project space until March 26, featuring images of Laura, as well as video displays of other voices and a kitchen table, where visitors can sit down and discuss end-of-life options.
Lara said international sales agents for the film will be announced in the coming weeks, as well as international festival screenings.
Laura’s Choice will be broadcast on the ABC on March 17 and 24.