“Last Stop in Santa Rosa” | Interview with Elizabeth Lo

| February 3, 2014

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Hauntingly simple and beautifully executed, Elizabeth Lo’s short documentary Last Stop in Santa Rosa profiles BrightHaven, an animal care organization that provides sanctuary to animals at risk of euthanization. Lo’s film, made at Stanford University, delicately balances her subject matter, visually echoing a line uttered by one of her subjects: “What we see is what we see from the outside”.

 

Tell us a little about your background and about your film.

I grew up in Hong Kong, and went to Tisch at NYU to study film as an undergrad. Then I spent three years in New York working for various television documentary series, including OWN’s Our America with Lisa Ling – which taught me a lot about producing and writing. Through Last Stop in Santa Rosa, a portrait of struggling animals in their twilight years, I hoped to raise more universal questions about what it means to induce death – or prolong life – in both people and animals. At its core, this is a film about the dilemmas we face when our loved ones near the end stages of life.

Last Stop in Santa Rosa

Last Stop in Santa Rosa

 

How were you first introduced to the Pope family?

My own dog died a few years ago, which led me to want to make a film about a family who was grappling with the life and death issues that come with caring for an elderly animal. But in the course of my research about pet euthanasia, I discovered the animal hospice movement: instead of putting pets down at the end of life, animals were hospiced in the same way people are.

Last Stop in Santa Rosa

At that point I came across BrightHaven, one of the leading animal hospices in the Bay Area, and met its founders, Gail and Richard Pope. When I spoke with them, they were incredibly warm and philosophical. They had controversial but convincing views that made me rethink all of my presumptions about the ethics of pet euthanasia. That’s when I knew I wanted to make this film.

Three minutes in, a woman asks, “Was she meant to live?” What role does destiny play in your film?

Destiny is less at play here than the ethical dilemma that the woman, Gail, faces. When she asks whether the blind disabled dog was meant to live, it’s there to complicate the film’s view. What happens when a dog who would have been euthanized because of health reasons is allowed to live – is it better to exist and suffer, or not? I wanted to let audiences come to their own view on these questions that don’t have easy answers.

Last Stop in Santa Rosa

Do you believe the Popes were defying or fulfilling the destiny of the animals?

This is one of the major questions that the film struggles with. At the end of the day, it’s almost impossible to know. But after meeting the Popes, and reading more about the animal hospice movement, I do believe that pet euthanasia is something that should not be considered an expectation at the end of life, but a last resort…because (like Richard says in the film) we just don’t know what the last stages of life are like for animals.

What filmmakers have influenced you?

Errol Morris is the filmmaker who got me into documentaries in the first place. I watched Vernon, Florida while I was at NYU, and it made me realize documentary could be art, not just information. Recently Lucien Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan blew my mind again. Werner Herzog, Kelly Reichardt, and Mike Leigh are huge influences too. Their aesthetic and storytelling styles are amazing and inspiring.

If you weren’t a filmmaker, what would your profession be?

I would want to be a documentary distributor, so that I can promote nonfiction films that I don’t think get enough attention – either stylistically, or in terms of their message.

Filmmaker Elizabeth Lo

Filmmaker Elizabeth Lo

Who were your favorite professors and why? How did they influence the film?

Jim Brown was my mentor and professor at NYU Tisch while I was an undergrad, and was a huge force in encouraging me to make documentaries that pushed formal boundaries. At Stanford, all my professors have been amazing, and have had a huge impact on this film – Jamie Meltzer, Kris Samuelson, and Jan Krawitz were all incredible at steering the film in the right direction, pushing me to retain my own voice as a filmmaker, and letting the footage speak for itself as much as it can.

What do you recommend most about your film program?

The friendships and collaborations that are made possible by Stanford’s small class size, and the rigor of the program (we see each other every day), means that no matter how overwhelming things get, we’re in it together. This type of intensive immersion in a program has been more rewarding and productive than I could have ever imagined. The professors are also extraordinarily present, talented, and informed. The program’s theoretical and historical component has exposed me to so many seminal, radical filmmakers that I had never known before, and it’s changed the way I understand documentaries.

What is your advice to prospective film students trying to pick a school?

Pick a school that fits your objectives as a filmmaker, producer, and artist.

Describe your film in a single word.

Hospice.

Elizabeth Lo is an M.F.A. candidate in the documentary film program at Stanford University. She is now in pre-production for her next documentary short. 

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Funders

Film School Shorts is made possible by a grant from Maurice Kanbar, celebrating the vitality and power of the moving image, and by the members of KQED.

Film School Shorts is a production of KQED.

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Credits

Series Producer
Lisa Landi

Associate Producer
Julia Shackelford

Editor
Peter Borg

Design
Zaldy Serrano
Christina Zee White

Original Music
Written and Produced by
Trifonic

Audio
John Andrieni

Interactive
Kevin Cooke
Marie K Lee

Social Media Specialist
Aldo Mora-Blanco

Publicity
Sarah Hoffner

On Air Promotion
Bridget Louie

Legal
William Lowery
Abby Staeble

Director of TV Production
Sandy Schonning

Executive Producer
Scott Dwyer