Cameraperson Kirsten Johnson asked her father if she could make a documentary about his death. He agreed. The film spans years, chronicling a daughter documenting the last years of her father’s life. Going into this Netflix documentary, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did; but I was blown away by the film’s commentary on dementia, loss and mortality. In this regard, the movie feels very appropriate for the dreadful year that was 2020.
Kirsten’s initial ideas behind this documentary were an attempt to come to terms with her father’s imminent death. In order to accept this, she decided to use a variety of stuntmen representing her father passing in different scenarios; car crashes, falling air conditioners, tumbling down stairs. These performances are often very visceral and realistic; contrasting the other “staged” elements of this documentary – postmodernist surreal sequences depicting the heaven of Dick’s Adventist religion, which wonderfully contrast the grim subject matter with an idyllic world. These sequences remind me of the documentary techniques used in The Act of Killing(2013), although where that movie depicts a murderer confronting his crimes, Dick Johnson is Dead is almost the opposite – the movie is about the pain of losing someone you love, coming to terms with an inevitability and rejoicing in it.
But, as Kirsten says when asked why she became a documentarian, “real life is often more interesting.” In the backdrop of this initial idea, Kirsten documents her father’s memory loss, culminating in what is essentially another death. She contrasts this footage with memories of her late Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother, illustrating the tragedy of Dick’s situation. This tragedy is hammered through early on after Dick’s car is taken away and he starts reacting very negatively. As the subsequent conversation reveals, he feels his independence has been stripped from him; he knows he can’t go back in life and feels he is approaching its inevitable end.
Dick’s tragedy is not just his tragedy; death is something we all must face. To love is to feel what Kirsten documents as her father slowly passes, both mentally and physically. But this movie, while illustrating Dick’s passing, reminds us that death “is a part of who we all are,” and chooses to rejoice in it. In some ways, Dick Johnson is not dead, he will never be dead – he has been immortalised forever within this movie. I cannot recommend this film enough.