Kirsten and Dick Johnson find an inventive way to deal with the latter's inevitable death: by staging Dick's demise in the most absurd ways imaginableTWITTER/VIDIOTS

Content Note: This article contains detailed discussion of grief and the death of a loved one.

As a documentary filmmaker, Kirsten Johnson can only deal with her father Dick Johnson’s progressive dementia by turning to the place where she is safest: behind her camera. Following the success of her 2016 documentary Cameraperson, Johnson’s new autobiographical film, Dick Johnson is Dead, embodies less of a documentary and more an intimate “home movie” within which a harrowing discussion of grief appears.

Dick Johnson dies in the first three minutes of the film. And then immediately comes back to life. This marks the start of the comfortable cycle for the remainder of our time following Dick, an ebb and flow of staged death scenes. Every sudden cut in the lulling string soundtrack, every haunting close-up on a pool of blood or shot of lifeless limbs is revealed to be a manipulation. Johnson fleetingly throws out the possibility of death only to drive us back to safety in the following scenes, where Dick is very much alive and kicking.

Dick indulges his love for chocolate cakeTWITTER/NETFLIXFILM

Death is tackled with a childhood playfulness, with Dick falling victim to a number of slapstick demises. And yet between it all, he gets on with his life. We cannot help but smile as we watch him eat alphabet soup accompanied by a glass of wine, or play with his grandchildren, or enjoy the simple pleasures of a good chocolate cake. Like Johnson, we come to see death as a natural part of human experience, as much as the anecdotes of life. “It would be so easy if loving only gave us the beautiful,” she narrates from her closet, “but what loving demands is that we face the fear of losing each other. That when it gets messy, we hold onto each other.” Johnson invites death into her life, and with it the grief that she will inevitably have to face as her father’s dementia steadily takes over.

We get to know Dick so much throughout the film. As he rises from the dead after every gruesome demise, he is immortalised — the film is his heaven. Here he will dwell “alive forever” in our minds as well as his family’s.

“Dick Johnson, who dies a staged death during the film’s opening credits, is firmly kept alive in this final sequence, not by the performative scenes of a documentary, but through his own daughter.”

But is this a healthy outlet for Kirsten and her father? Does the medium of film provide closure for Johnson, helping alleviate the pain of this slow process of grief, or does it completely prevent it? Towards the film’s climax, we witness Dick’s staged funeral. There is a shift in perspective: the camera pans over the “audience”, with close-ups of grief-stricken spectators as Dick watches from the wings. We realise, at the same moment as Johnson, that this is a performance, complete with a soundtrack and a heavy round of applause for Dick at the end of the show. Locked up once more in her place of comfort, her closet, she narrates, “We were so happy that day. We thought we could stop what was coming. That we’d found a way to hold on.”

What was previously a fierce head-on tackling of death becomes a comfortable façade. It is easy to laugh off the ridiculous anecdotes in which Dick dies time and time again when they seem so detached from reality, closer to recreations of cinematic cult classics than reflections of the real experience of death and grief. It makes the eventuality of actual death easier to ignore. Even Johnson’s colourful vision of heaven, with tightly choreographed dance scenes and lavish sets, works towards her disillusionment. As a cameraperson, she has not only manipulated us, but also herself.

Kirsten's loving portrait of her father won the International Documentary Association Awards for Best Writing and Best EditingTWITTER/RIPDICKJOHNSON

Regardless, this lost quest ends in hope. Johnson must enact this performance to realise, in her closing lines, how she will have to confront this slow grief when it eventually comes. “All I know is that Dick Johnson is dead,” she speaks confidently into her microphone, only to immediately backtrack and deliver her real closing words: “All I can say is that Dick Johnson is dead. And all I want to say is long live Dick Johnson.” She renounces all control as a filmmaker who has tried to predict death, replacing the confidence of “knowing” with the uncertainty of being “able” to say. It is with these words, and a tender closing shot centred on an embrace between her and her father, that she leaves us. Dick Johnson, who dies a staged death during the film’s opening credits, is firmly kept alive in this final sequence, not by the performative scenes of a documentary, but through his own daughter.


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In this pandemic, everything seems to have become “unprecedented”. Death can stalk up to anyone with little notice. However, Dick Johnson is Dead has taught me that our only option when faced with the heaviness of grief is to carry on as best we can; to let life wash over us, creating intimate memories; to allow death to run its unstoppable course. It feels odd that this realisation brings me so much comfort, and yet — it does.