Dick Johnson Is Dead


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Dick Johnson Is Dead
"The emotional honesty of this film is by turns elating and heartbreaking, with Kirsten not scared to let her feelings show on camera alongside those of her dad." | Photo: John Wakayama Carey

When, a mere two minutes into this documentary Dick Johnson - the father of documentarian Kirsten - is, apparently, killed in the street by a falling air conditioning unit, you know this is not going to be a regular documentary about Alzheimer's. Moments later, we see a crew helping him to his feet, resurrected, if you will; falling and getting back up again themes that will run through this intensely personal but resoundingly universal film. This is the first, but most certainly not the last time Dick will meet a slapstick demise in a film which is built on joy and the love of families while also acknowledging not just the creeping grief that attends degenerative conditions like dementia but the awareness we all have that many of our loved ones will die before us and, potentially, when we least expect it. It may also give you a craving for double-chocolate fudge cake.

Dick is a fully willing participant, having lost his wife to the same condition some years previously but through the course of the film Kirsten constantly questions the notion of his consent - watchful, too, of the impact on others of the repeated slaying of her dad. "It is so weird to see your buddy in a coffin," says one of his friends at a funeral they stage, "this is not good for me." It's pretty good for Dick, though, at least initially, as he obviously relishes the opportunity to work with his daughter on the project, which not only kills him off but also creates a flamboyant afterlife for him - based on his Seventh Day Adventist beliefs - involving a lot of feathers and popcorn, plus a chocolate fountain, of course.

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These baroque moments of humour are interspersed by day-to-day footage of Dick and his family as his life begins to slowly contract - first with the closure of the office where he worked as a clinical psychologist, worse still, for him, the loss of his car as he packs up of his life so he can go and live with Kirsten. This is a film that acknowledges grief in the round - not just focusing on those who will live on after Dick, but showing his own experience of loss while he's still here, along with a sense of fear and of regret to be leaving others behind. Meanwhile the "you never know the moment" feeling is also reinforced by in memoriam captions that appear over footage of Dick's friends from time to time, indicating they have since passed away while showing their vibrancy in the here and now of the film shoot.

The backstage workings of the documentary are also fully on show, as Dick and Kirsten talk to some of those who will help stage the stunts, both the documentarian's and her father's natural inquisitiveness allowing that uneasiness around talking about death that many of us will experience in our lifetimes to make its presence felt. This includes moments of discomfort, when he struggles to grasp the nature of 'fake' blood in one of the scenes, something that, in credit to Kirsten, she is also open about, urging us to look with her at "the things that are difficult to see". .

The emotional honesty of this film is by turns elating and heartbreaking, with Kirsten not scared to let her feelings show on camera alongside those of her dad. There's no attempt to skate over the toll his illness is taking on the family but their openness also lets the love and joy shine out even as we see the marked decline in Dick over the course of the film. It's ultimately, the best sort of film about dying because it celebrates the best things about being alive.

Reviewed on: 12 Mar 2021
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With this inventive portrait, a cameraperson seeks a way to keep her 86-year-old father alive forever. Utilising moviemaking magic and her family’s dark humour, she celebrates Dr Dick Johnson’s last years by staging fantasies of death and beyond. Together, dad and daughter confront the great inevitability awaiting us all.

Director: Kirsten Johnson

Writer: Nels Bangerter, Kirsten Johnson

Year: 2020

Runtime: 89 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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