"I’d avoided thinking about death like the plague. And a friend of mine caught me up one day, when I said ‘you know, if I die,’ and he said ‘Allan, it’s not if you die, it’s when you die.’ And I realized that I, like a lot of people, hadn’t really thought about it. So I thought I’d better find out about it, which meant making a film." – Allan King
Dying at Grace is legendary documentary filmmaker Allan King’s respectful, brave and emotional "actuality drama" about five patients dying in the palliative care unit of the Salvation Army Toronto Grace Health Centre. All five people profiled agreed to share their experience on film in the hope that it would provide others some insight and understanding into the experience of death, an entirely commonplace yet virtually taboo subject in our society. Somber in tone and observational in style, the film is presented without voiceover narration or interviews with the subjects.
Carmela Nardone, an elderly Italian-Canadian woman with a daughter and grandchildren, is the first to die. Not wanting to cause any more anguish to her family, she chooses to die alone, sharing her death only with camera and sound men Peter Walker and Jason Milligan (who maintained an intimate yet respectfully removed relationship with all the subjects).
Joyce Bone, Carmela’s roommate at the hospital, was reluctant to take pain medication for fear she might die in her sleep. After Carmela’s death, Joyce shares a room with Eda Simac, a successful civil servant with a droll sense of humour. In her late fifties and suffering from cancer, Eda’s sudden remission leads her to plan optimistically to move from the hospital into her own apartment, but this dream soon fades.
Rick Pollard experienced a brutal childhood and ran away from home as a teenager, later to become a Satan’s Choice biker. He reformed and found some peace in life but, as death draws near, early memories return to haunt him. Distressed, he says he would rather die in a shoot-out than in a hospital bed. But when death finally arrives, he greets it with an overwhelming sense of peace.
Lloyd Greenway, a minister of the Metropolitan Community Church and the youngest of the patients filmed, is suffering from brain cancer. Cared for lovingly by his partner of thirty years, Lloyd fights death for five days and nights before quietly succumbing.
Dying at Grace conveys a sense of transcendence few films can match. Possibly the definitive film on death, it was edited from 120 hours of material recorded over fourteen weeks in the winter of 2002-2003. King, who also spent two years researching the project, employs a highly respectful treatment that never feels exploitative.
Dying at Grace had its world premiere at the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival®, where it was widely heralded. Toronto Star critic Geoff Pevere called it "one of the most defiantly humane films in the entire festival. While the movie is inescapably about death, it’s also an embrace of life: We are forced to confront a fact of existence stripped of all its pornographic fictional trappings ... the death in King’s extraordinary film offers an oblique critique of our ritualized, pop-culture denial of this primal human event."
Dying at Grace was critically acclaimed during its small, arthouse release in January 2004. It was named one of Canada’s Top Ten of 2003 by an independent, national panel comprised of filmmakers, programmers, journalists and industry professionals.