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Dick Johnson Is Dead

Released 2020. Director: Kirsten Johnson

IS IT MORBID TO ALWAYS THINK AND TALK ABOUT YOUR OWN DEATH? SOME WOULD SAY SO. And if this sounds like you, you should know Dick Johnson is Dead is all about confronting the final exit. This documentary is one of a kind, a blend of real life, fiction and fancy lovingly put together by Kirsten Johnson and her dad Dick. It will speak to anyone who’s had to contemplate the death of an elderly parent before it occurs.

An accomplished filmmaker, Kirsten worked on the acclaimed Cameraperson, Fahrenheit 9/11, The Invisible War and the Academy Award winning CitizenFour. She knows what she’s doing when she’s behind a camera. Only this time it’s a very personal father-daughter project unlike her previous work.

When Dick started to show signs of dementia in his mid-80s, he knew it’s time to finally retire his career as a psychiatrist. He had made mistakes with the scheduling of his patients and more alarmingly, had no memory of arriving home with four flat tyres after driving through a construction site. Reluctantly he sold his car and the house where he lived so many years with his wife who had died in 2007, and moved cross-country from Seattle to New York so Kirsten could look after him.

Kirsten documents this transition, capturing her father letting go of his independence and adjusting to life in a different city. As if mentally preparing for the inevitable, the two of them stage realistic scenarios where Dick meets death in different ways. A falling air-conditioner hits him on the head as he passes a building, getting whacked in the face with a construction beam leading to copious bleeding, falling down stairs and twisting his limbs, … These are staged with a full camera and sound crew and a stunt double to absorb the physical impact in Dick’s place. Through all of this, Dick is incredibly accommodating and game for anything, happy to die in any gruesome manner. Even though his memory might fail him at times, the man is an active participant in designing his own mock demise.

In case you think this is all too sad and dark, it’s really not. This exercise in fake deaths has a genuine sense of love and care. It’s also quite funny in places. Through Dick’s twilight years we see scenes of family life with his grandchildren, recollections of his younger days, and days when he’s not feeling too good.

There is a recurring flash to a set-up of “heaven” with some of Dick’s favourite people (in printed face masks), song and dance and laughter abound, complete with white fluffy clouds on a blue sky and a chocolate fountain. Jesus even appears to wash Dick’s feet and make his deformed toes normal. In slow motion, Dick’s face is a picture of excitement and happiness, like a kid at his birthday party. Heaven indeed.

Staging fake deaths seems to take the sting out of the fear of the ultimate goodbye, but it only goes so far. In his mock funeral, one of Dick’s old friends breaks down while delivering his eulogy. Everyone in that fully attended church service knows it’s not real, yet the act of mourning in an artificial set-up has the power to touch and move in a way Kirsten the documentarian has probably not anticipated.

Now that Kirsten has finished with the various accidental ways her father could die of, and edited his life story together and shown it to the world, watching Dick Johnson is Dead feels like watching someone’s home video. A perceptive home video with private thoughts and unvarnished emotions. As a documentary about real people and their thoughts and visions on death, it begins with a macabre approach but ends in a hopeful tone, even forward looking. In case you’re wondering, Dick Johnson is still alive.


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