By Stephanie Ornelas
When beloved father and husband Eli Timoner, founder of 1970s Air Florida, told his wife and three kids that he’d made the decision to die, they were stunned and terrified. In his 90s and in failing health, Eli was not just ready, but determined to medically terminate his life. During a mandatory 15-day waiting period, his daughter, Sundance Institute alum and filmmaker Ondi Timoner, decided to document his final days, but not for the purpose of making a film. It was more of a personal project.
“I didn’t intend to make a documentary about my father or his death,” says Ondi. “I was actually working on a scripted film at the time. I didn’t want to mediate anyone else’s experience.”
But something inside her said she had to film her father. “My memory is not that great, and I try to film everything I love that brings me passion.”
When it came time to put a memorial video together, Ondi had tons of great footage in front of her and knew she was on the verge of something great. So, she decided to make a short that ultimately turned into a feature documentary.
The film documents Eli’s final days while shining light on his legacy and the impact he made on those around him. He was often called an innovator who was known for changing the rules, especially when it came to racial segregation within the union.
But it also casts light on disability disrimination as the film tragically recounts the moment Eli’s own airline asked him to step down because “it was a bad look to have a CEO who was in a wheelchair.” This brought immense shame to Eli, and that indignity was something that shaped the message behind this film.
“He misunderstood the value of his life,” says daughter Rabbi Rachel Timoner. “He held too much shame. We all should have the ability to look at our shame and unload it,” she says.
“A huge message I hope the viewers get from this film is that sometimes we can misunderstand success. We are so much more worthy than we think we are,” Rachel adds.
The family’s heart-wrenching journey to find closure sends an incredible message of love, legacy, and dignity, and shows how grief looks different for everyone.
Assisted death is a very sensitive topic and viewers were curious how, as a rabbi, Rachel navigated that. During the post-screening Q&A, she boldly addresses what Jewish law forbids and her own opinions on the subject.
“After going through this experience with [my father], and from having congregants who wished that they had this choice, because they were suffering terribly for a very long time, I think we should consider that holding life sacred can be done by reducing suffering at the end of life,” says Rachel.
“If we craft these laws carefully and have these conversations in our religious/spiritual traditions with great sensitivity, we can consider whether sometimes the extended agony of dying could be relieved in a way that actually enhances the dignity and honor of life. And I would like to see more of us have that conversation.”