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Near Death (1989)

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Renowned documentarian Frederick Wiseman profiles the doctors, nurses, physicians, and patients at the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, as he watches medical staff work around... See full summary »


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Renowned documentarian Frederick Wiseman profiles the doctors, nurses, physicians, and patients at the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, as he watches medical staff work around the clock trying to provide care and comfort for patients possibly experiencing the last moments of their lives and console family members of the patients in addition. Written by Steve Pulaski

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7 October 1989 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Lähellä kuolemaa  »

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1.33 : 1
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Frederick Wiseman turns an observational camera, once again, on competence, compassion, and soul
9 September 2014 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

I planned in late spring that I was going to devote part of the first week of September to watching Frederick Wiseman's Near Death, a six-hour documentary epic about family members responding to the final moments of a loved ones' life while hooked up to machinery in crowded hospitals, as well as a detailed account of the work put in by hospital staff and personnel. Little did I know, at the end of August, I would witness my own display of "near death."

My grandmother was admitted to the hospital after suffering a massive stroke and became so uncontrollable, in a tizzy of psychotic rage, she had to be detained to the bed and given dosages of a sleep drug. Turns out, my grandmother turned unconscious and, while she was able to breath on her own, she didn't seem to have much control over her movements. She couldn't speak, and all we could do as her family was stand by her and witness what could very well be her last moments. I spent hours in a hospital, alongside my unbelievably distraught grandfather, my restless, sleepless aunt, my own stressed father, who was left to make the decisions on what to do with my grandmother, my devastated cousins, my nurse mother, who'd come to the rescue of breaking down difficult information, and additional family members express grief and devastation to such a fit of heartbreak.

I'd like to say I'm digressing from the actual film at hand, but I believe Wiseman wants us to somewhat reflect on how we'd respond in this particular quandary, as well as try and relate an experience we've had where it was like staring death or "near death" in the face. Wiseman takes us inside Boston's Beth Israel Hospital, specifically in the intensive care unit, where dozens of competent and qualified medical personnel work to diagnose, treat, and console patients and their family members. These patients are admitted in the particular unit for the obvious concern - they need intense, uncompromising care, for these could, fearfully, be their last moments alive. Some have cancer, some have heart issues, some have poor lungs, and some are just coming to terms with their age. Whatever the case may be, this is a difficult time, and the news usually brought forth is negative or faintly positive.

Wiseman unsurprisingly doesn't examine medical debates such as universal healthcare, or even really dig deep into the concept of the afterlife, heaven vs. hell, and so forth. There's no place for that kind of debate at this moment in time. Wiseman wants to focus on the immediate present: what we can see, what we can hear, what we can observe, monitor, and digest about a loved one and what can we do to assure their health is maintained and their current state comfortable? Wiseman, in addition, captures everything through a black and white lens, as bleak as possible, complimenting much of the information we hear from doctors and loved ones throughout the course of six hours.

While few scenes in Near Death aren't sad, one of the most soul-crushing is seeing a doctor telling an elderly man that his lungs are in such poor condition that, while they'd like to put him in intubation (a process using a machine to restore competent breathing before being slowly weened off a patient so he can breath on his own), the staff feels that doing so would only confine him to the machine and make him dependent on it. The man sits there, lying in bed, with a blank look on his face. There is no emotion in this scene other than the emotions shed by the viewers. One could view this as a simple slice of life: we're born, we live, we get older, we shutdown, and we die. Others will view this as a depressingly human state of affairs. I say it's an inevitable tragedy that still nonetheless strikes an emotional chord.

The final hour and a half is mostly dedicated to examining a man, who has been admitted for similar reasons in that he is beginning to lose strength in his organs, mainly his heart, liver, and kidneys, and that is making his vitals - blood pressure, blood sugar, heart-rate - all operate in a poorer state. We see his long-devoted, ostensibly long-suffering wife, sob in front of a careful and compassionate doctor by the name of Dr. Taylor, as he sits by her side, quick to answer, or respond, to her many questions and concerns and offer additional options. Dr. Taylor and the woman speak for sometimes twenty minutes at a given time, frequently through the final hour and a half of this documentary, and they are some of the most human dialogs I've ever seen exchanged on film.

This is one of the many scenes that shows the true compassion and skill of the medical personnel all across America. These men and women, some old, some fresh out of medical school, some with the title of a 'doctor,' others playing assistant to the man/woman with the title, but their daily activities range from changing fluids, observing vitals, writing reports, or scratching backs of patients not equipped with the strength or energy to do it themselves. Not to mention, these doctors engage in some of the hardest conversations imaginable, arguably some of the hardest and rawest ever committed to film. Their compassion and soul shouldn't go unnoticed, albeit the incredible amount of information existing in this film.

Near Death is, admittedly, exhaustive and sometimes tedious, as expected with almost every film spanning one-forth of a day. Because of this, it is best digested over the course of two, or in my case three days, for emotions to be digested and to prevent information overload of any kind. Furthermore, it should be stated that Wiseman, as repetitive as it is getting to say, has made another masterpiece of documentary filmmaking.

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