Community Screenings of “Being Mortal”

Lights, Camera, Action: Using Film to Engage Californians in Advance Care Planning


In 2014 Harvard surgeon and writer Atul Gawande published the best-seller Being Mortal about modern medicine and the larger culture’s difficulty with accepting death. In February 2015, a FRONTLINE documentary also called “Being Mortal” aired on public television stations nationwide. The program, which follows Dr. Gawande, shares the close-up experiences of several patients and families at the end of life, including his own. The film was funded by the John and Wauna Harman Foundation. (See the complete film online.)

While 2.4 million people watched the “Being Mortal” documentary when it was broadcast, viewing by African Americans, Latinos, and Asians was very low, together comprising only 11% of viewing households. The viewing audience also lacked diversity in other areas such as education level and age.

To help amplify the conversation, CHCF and the Harman Foundation teamed up to promote community screenings of “Being Mortal.” Thirty-nine organizations across the state were selected to host screening events. Held in a variety of community settings and targeting diverse audiences, the screenings and post-screening discussions were intended to educate participants about choices they might make if they had a serious illness and to encourage them to identify and communicate their wishes to those who matter.

A post-screening email survey found that 91% say they are now more comfortable discussing their end-of-life wishes, and 81% say they have talked to someone about the kind of care they would want if they were dying.

    • SAN DIEGO: When her father got sick, Anabel made sure he got the kind of treatment that he wanted, and didn't get the treatment that he didn't want. But it was hard on her, as he didn't have an advance directive. Anabel took her mother to the screening to make sure she put her wishes into writing. (photo courtesy Anabel Kuykendall)
    • BERKELEY: Ashby Village, a senior support organization, hosted a screening at the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley, which was attended by more than 150 people. A long waiting list prompted the group to hold a second event with screenings in English and Spanish. (photo courtesy Ashby Village)
    • OAKLAND: Husband and wife Bernie and Rose volunteer at the Vietnamese American Community Center of the East Bay, which hosted a screening in August. The film prompted Rose to talk to her 82-year-old mother, who also lives in Oakland. (photo courtesy VACCEB).
    • OAKLAND: Gwen and Asale, founders of the East Bay advocacy group Grandmothers Who Help, organized two well-attended screenings of "Being Mortal." The film prompted Asale to formalize her own wishes and to have candid conversations about end-of-life care with her family. (photo courtesy Audrey Chiang)
    • LOS ANGELES: Luz attended a screening at Cal State LA and moderated one of discussions that followed. Because of her experience with her mother, who was subjected to unwanted medical interventions just before she died, Luz is passionate about encouraging others to document their end-of-life care wishes. (photo courtesy Luz Solis)
    • SAN FRANCISCO: The Institute on Aging organized a screening of "Being Mortal" to a packed house. One attendee talked about the role of culture in end-of-life care. She shared her experience as a caregiver for her grandmother, an immigrant from China: "There wasn't any formal end-of-life planning. My dad, aunt, and I made all the decisions about her care. In her last year, she became very frail. We could all see that it was really hard on her. She was from a different generation. She never learned English, didn't know how to read. She was accustomed to other people taking care of the decisions." (photo courtesy IOA)

The complete survey results, along with an issue brief that summarizes the project, is available as a Document Download. Click through the slideshow above to learn about some of the screening participants. See a February 2016 interview with Dr. Gawande about turning his book into a film.

The interactive map below shows where the screenings took place throughout the state.

Being Mortal Community Screening Tool Kit

This guide provided sponsors of local film screenings with recommendations for creating a successful event, including engaging audiences, event planning tips, a sample agenda for the post-film discussion, and more. It is available as a Document Download along with contact information for all the screening locations.