Ondi Timoner’s documentary Last Flight Home is a moving lesson on love and how to say goodbye

When her father decided to end his life after a long and painful physical turmoil, Ondi Timoner decided to start recording his final goodbyes.

“We don’t get a choice on how we come into this world, but we should get a choice on how we go out.”

These are the words of a nurse consulting Eli Timoner and his family, spoken as they progress towards his passing. 

Eli isn’t dying. Not in the medical sense. But he is tired of living. After suffering from a stroke in his early fifties and having spent the last few years in agony, unable to move and, in his own words “waiting to die”, Eli has chosen to start the process of terminating his life under the California End of Life Option Act.

Due to regulations under the act, once Eli has made his first official request to a physician, he must wait 15 days until he can be given the green light. 

It’s then that Ondi Timoner, his daughter, picks up a video camera and starts recording.

A seasoned documentarian, Ondi is no stranger to turning the lens on her subjects. But in Last Flight Home, the subject is her father, and the story is his death.

Over the course of 15 days in 2021, Eli begins to say his goodbyes to those he loves. Speaking with friends and old colleagues, Eli informs and explains to those around him what he has decided to do, all while surrounded constantly by his supportive and characterful family.

One might be inclined to think that this film is a stance on the End of Life Option Act, or perhaps even a rumination on the concept of assisted dying, but this is merely the backdrop of Eli’s story. We see the administrative roller coaster that he must endure to be granted this right to die, as well as an explanation of how the process will actually work, but Ondi otherwise leaves it at that. Instead, she focuses entirely on Eli and his final farewell in a clear and measured manner.

Make no mistake, Last Flight Home is gut-wrenching. It’s easy to assume that the film will be melancholy due to the nature of its subject, but it’s even easier to underestimate its sheer force. Perhaps melancholy isn’t even the right word; for all its heartbreak, Last Flight Home isn’t sad. It’s everything that comes close to sadness but doesn’t quite touch the edge.

Ondi Timoner and her father Eli

Because Last Flight Home isn’t a story about death. It’s a story about love, and what it means to share goodbyes that are filled, overflowing, with it. 

The strongest moments in the film lay in the goodbyes themselves, where Eli communicates with his darlings through video calls and in-person visits. These are the moments where the tears come in waves. 

There are a few scenes almost too deeply shattering to watch more than once. But the point of no return comes when Eli is talking to his son David. David reaches up and places his hand on his elderly father’s head. He does it almost unthinkingly, a gesture so natural, but it means the world to Eli, who softly and gratefully thanks him.

Ondi captures these quiet moments with grace.

It’s clear Eli is adored. As the founder of the fastest-growing airline in the world, Air Florida, he was a visionary, beloved by his colleagues and employees alike. But after a chiropractic procedure went wrong, he suffered a stroke, leaving him paralysed. After being forcibly removed from his own company and watching his finances topple, Eli’s life was entirely thrown for the next 40 years.

And yet, if the conversations with his former workmates are anything to go by, Eli still left behind an incredible legacy. And his family, who offer him nothing but their full support and understanding throughout the process, don’t think of him as anyone other than the man who raised them with full and joyful lives.

Eli Timoner was the founder of Air Florida, which became the fastest growing airline in the world

The people Eli knows also use this opportunity to ask him questions. A friend asks him how he might let them know that he is OK after he goes. His grandchildren take one last chance, in a particularly affecting moment, to ask their grandfather questions. 

Eli never falters, despite his weakened and fragile state. We want to believe that the ones we love will be OK, and when we look at Eli, we feel deeply that he will be.

Any one of the things that Eli says could be enough to guide you through the rest of life with better wisdom and stronger intent. Fiercely wise and unwaveringly brave, Eli provides many lessons to those around him. But the best lesson that can be taken from his film is how valuable love truly is, and how saying goodbye is a gift.

During the course of the pandemic, so many lost family and friends and were unable to say even a simple farewell. Eli is blessed to be able to give his final well wishes, and it’s clear he knows it. 

And as for love, the film is made from it. From Ondi’s intent to capture her father’s final days to the laughter and memories he shares over Skype and the little moments with family in the spaces between pre-emptive mourning – such as sipping wine, eating pastrami and visits from dogs – utter devotion is stitched into every shot.

Ondi Timoner is a filmmaker, known for her work Dig! and We Live In Public

This is what Last Flight Home is about.

Laying under Eli’s discomfort and exhaustion is the secret that can help us get the conclusion we all desire, the one that Eli gets: to be surrounded by those who cherish us at the end, and to get the chance to say goodbye.

Last Flight Home is released in UK cinemas today.

Images: MTV Documentary Films

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