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photo The Vanishing Line
By Maren Monsen

When does life become a fate worse than death? In this age of medical "miracles," an increasing number of doctors, patients and their families are being forced to deal with this troubling, complex and universal question. The Vanishing Line, a contemplative, personal film by physician/filmmaker Maren Monsen, explores the timeless implications of this modern medical dilemma. Monsen takes viewers on a lyrical and heartfelt quest to discover an "art of dying" in a world that taught her how to prolong life, but offered few prescriptions for coping with death.

For doctors, death means failure. The Vanishing Line chronicles Monsen's personal and professional challenge regarding end-of-life issues.

"I'll never forget that phone call, the first time I was asked to pronounce someone dead," Monsen recalls at the start of the film. "I'd only been working in the emergency room a few weeks. Medical school had prepared me to treat disease but I had absolutely no idea how to deal with death. Our job is to keep people alive. So what was I really doing? Prolonging life, or prolonging death?"

Combining poetic imagery, clear-eyed documentary footage, and soul-searching commentary, Monsen evokes a provocative vocabulary for her exploration of death. Dramatic action sequences of emergency-room resuscitations are woven with a rich tapestry of images that includes three women in Greek chitons spinning the thread of life, a potent visual reminder that no matter how advanced medical technology becomes, life and death remain essentially beyond our control.

Monsen also follows Jim Brigham, a hospice social worker,as he visits the homes of some of his terminally ill clients. All are laying the groundwork for their imminent deaths, negotiating in advance whether or not they want to be resuscitated, what comfort measures will be taken, and whether to go to a hospital or die at home. Brigham shares the story of his wife Cay's prolonged death from multiple sclerosis in 1986, and explains how that experience profoundly affected the way he views the end of life: "This act of dying, of completing one's life, does not have to be a terrible and horrible thing," he says.

"I hope that after seeing this film, people will look at death in a different way," says Monsen. "I think that by putting an emphasis on the length of life and postponing death at all costs, people really lose the idea of having a good death, which I think is something very important. We talk about quality of life, yet never quality of death. What I learned in the process of making this film is that there are a lot of things physicians can do, even if they can't cure the disease. They can provide medication to ease the symptoms. They can provide compassion and support. And they can give the patients the information they need to understand how their disease or their death might unfold."

The Vanishing Line chronicles one physician's exploration of how to try and meet the needs of the dying and their families and looks at the choices and concerns involved in treating what has no cure with the right balance of technology, compassion and care.

52 minutes
© 1998
Purchase $225 DVD
Order No. QA-522

"Inspiring!" —The Seattle Times

"Highly Recommended! Viewers will be prompted to weigh both sides of this difficult issue. For academic health science collections, social work programs and hospice programs." —Educational Media Reviews Online

"Marries the clear-eyed directedness of science to the raw honesty and fluid visual vocabulary of the arts."—Philadelphia Weekly

"A highly articulate documentary! Creates a vivid and illuminating revelation of how those who are dying might be better served." —The Hollywood Reporter

"Compelling! Maren Monsen brings a unique perspective to this polished production."—Booklist

Awards & Conference Screenings
Education Program of the Year Award, National Hospice Organization, 1998
Award of Excellence, Nashville Independent Film Festival, 1998

Related Films
Caring at the End of Life: Based on six case studies of seriously ill hospitalized patients, this moving film focuses on the key roles of nursing staff in improving patient-clinician communication in end-of-life care.

Mortal Lessons: Follows the stories of two extraordinary women, diagnosed with end stage cancer, who are facing death head on, determined to lead richer, more rewarding lives in the time that they have. Threaded through their narratives are the perspectives of hospice workers, funeral directors, bereavement counselors and others who deal with death on a daily basis.

Grief in America: A comprehensive, multi-ethnic perspective on the ways Americans deal with grief and loss in all their forms.

Pioneers of Hospice: Explores the development of hospice and palliative care, focusing on the legacy of the founders of the modern hospice movement: Dame Cicely Saunders, Florence Wald, the late Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, and Balfour Mount.

A Video Essay on Teenage Grief: Ninety percent of children in the United States may experience the loss of a loved one by the time they are eighteen. In this two-part DVD, five young women meet to share their experiences of grief over the loss of their fathers from suicide, accident, a drug overdose, and cancer.


Awards & Screenings

Related Films

Web Resources

To rent or purchase this film, please visit the Icarus Films website