Sundance award-winning film now streaming on Netflix
In her acclaimed 2016 film Cameraperson, director Kirsten Johnson pondered her long career as a documentary cinematographer, exploring the implications of mediating true stories through the apparatus of the camera. As part of it, she included poignant footage of her mother, who struggled with Alzheimer's disease for seven years before her death in 2007.
She was close to her mother, and is to her father too -- C. Richard "Dick" Johnson, an amiable man and psychiatrist by training who made an enormous difference in his daughter's life.
"He has treasured me for the [person] that I am and allowed me to be sort of as big as I wanted to be," Johnson tells me. "In some ways he saw me. I think so many of us struggle with not being seen or not being allowed."
It was devastating then when, as her father entered his mid-80s, he too began to show signs of dementia.
"Honestly, I was so mad to have had my mom already have it. I was sort of like, 'Are you kidding me?'" Johnson recalls. "I was sort of enraged at the idea of having to face it again."
What loving demands is that we face the fear of losing each other.
Face it, though, she has, in a way unique to Kirsten Johnson. Her new documentary, Dick Johnson Is Dead, now streaming on Netflix, is the product of her attempt to deal with her father's deteriorating memory and the prospect of his eventual demise.
Johnson's idea, what you might call her coping mechanism, was to enact ways in which she could lose her father -- staging his death for the camera in a series of faux accidents, from a fall down a flight of stairs to a fatal encounter with a cascading air conditioner. These invented incidents, conceived to be comedic and absurdist, would serve as a cinematic proxy for a reality almost too painful to accept.
"I loved Harold and Maude, I loved Groundhog Day. Suddenly that playfulness in movies gave me [the idea], like, 'Ohmygod, we could do this film,'" Johnson shares. "We'll just kill dad over and over again and he'll come back to life and we can do it until he really dies for real. And that's what I said to my dad and he thought that was hilarious and it was like, 'Okay, we're doing this. We're doing his funeral.'"
On its surface, the idea might sound morbid. Johnson essentially acknowledged that in a director's statement:
"When I started to make this film in 2017, I had a lot of gallows-humor hooks that I would throw at people and then watch their expressions as they stared back at me, half in disbelief," Johnson wrote. "I would say, 'It’s a film about never wanting my dad to die and figuring out as many ways to kill him off as possible as a form of pre-traumatic stress therapy.'”
The audience for the finished film hasn't shuddered in horror or taken offense. Quite the opposite, Johnson says.
"What's been wonderful about the response, people know this pain is here. It's just that we mostly don't talk about it," she observes. "Facing the pain and being defiant or being transgressive in response to it -- I think people are like, 'Right on! Do it!'"
...My incapacity to accept the possibility of my own father’s death was so great, I wished to make a film about his dying in order that he might live forever.
As is perhaps appropriate for the child of a psychiatrist, Johnson traces the origins of the film to a subconscious vision.
"I had this crazy dream where there was this casket and a man sat up and said -- and it wasn't my dad -- he said, 'I'm Dick Johnson and I'm not dead yet,'" the director remembers. "I probably did unconsciously understand that my dad -- that the dementia had begun. I wasn't consciously aware of it at that moment, but I think in the way that dreams and brains try to tell you things, now when I think about it, it was an unrecognizable man who was my father, which is sort of what the dementia would do. I think in some ways that dream was like, 'Wake up! Your dad is changing.'"
Making a film about someone with dementia raises questions about agency and consent, but the bond between Kirsten and her father makes it seem clear that at any stage of his life he would do anything for his daughter. What's more, he's an easygoing man with a ready smile.
"I'm pretty good at living in the here and now," he comments in the film. And indeed he takes endearing pleasure in simple things -- a slice of chocolate cake, a scoop of chocolate ice cream; taking a seat in his favorite chair, he says with a smile, "How sweet it is!"
Johnson experienced a nagging fear that she had waited too long to embark on the film.
"I had this terrible feeling that I was failing, that I started too late, that I wasn't gathering my father -- like the presence of him had already so transformed that it wasn't him," she tells me. "Then probably in November of last year we had a screening and it was coming together and I had sort of rebuilt him and I realized, 'We got him. It isn't all gone. I have evidence of who he was.' And the dementia was already enough ahead of us that I could see that we had done it."
Dick Johnson Is Dead is a New York Times Critic's Pick, described by reviewer Manohla Dargis as "pitched artfully between the celebratory and the elegiac." At the Sundance Film Festival last January, where the film premiered, it won a Special Jury Award for Innovation in Nonfiction Storytelling. It's a marvelously inventive film, suffused with a kind of magical realism, and manages to be both humorous and profound.
"We had some fun doing it," Johnson says of making the documentary, "and we had some tears doing it."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.