“Dick Johnson Is Dead” sees a filmmaker struggling to come to terms with her father’s mortality the best way she knows how: by making a movie. “Just the idea that I might ever lose this man is too much to bear,” Kirsten Johnson explains in the doc. In an effort to simultaneously keep her father alive forever and cope with his inevitable demise, Johnson decides to make a film about him dying, staging elaborate, inventive death scenes and recording them.
“I wanted to make something funny!” Johnson told us. “And we had already lived through to the end of my mother’s Alzheimer’s, and I, for one, literally could not bear to experience this stretch of life with my father without imploring cinema to help us find a new way through.”
While it’s indeed funny, Johnson’s “best attempt to keep [her] father from dying” is also a thoughtful meditation on identity in the wake of a dementia diagnosis, and a touching tribute to a man whom she’s loved and been loved by her entire life.
Like Johnson’s solo directorial debut, “Cameraperson,” a visual memoir, “Dick Johnson Is Dead” is boldly original, both in concept and execution. Both films deal, in varying degrees, with trauma and grief, but neither feels depressing or overly sentimental. The docs grapple with the ethics of filming — and potentially exploiting — vulnerable subjects, and in “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” Johnson repeatedly wonders aloud if it’s OK to press Record. Dick, a retired psychiatrist, seems totally game to get the star treatment, and happier still to collaborate with his daughter.
“My greatest wish is that [the film] opens the space for anyone who watches it to think about our shared territory of what it means to love and to question how in the world we can face dying,” Johnson told us.
“Dick Johnson Is Dead” is now streaming on Netflix.