Filmmaker Kirsten Johnson is a stunningly resilient person. As seen in her terrific 2016 visual memoir Cameraperson, Johnson has captured some of the bleakest settings humanity has to offer while also working through the personal difficulty of losing her mother to Alzheimer’s. She’s forced to face that same kind of loss again with her father Dick Johnson, but rather than succumb to despair or curse the fates, Johnson does what she does best: she picks up her camera and gets to the truth. Her new film Dick Johnson Is Dead is a beautiful movie about how we can use love to cope through hard times, and the love between Johnson and her father is a moving tribute to both of them. The documentary could so easily fall into being glib, maudlin, or dismissive, but instead it looks grief in the eye and then gives it a big hug as father and daughter celebrate life in the face of death.
Johnson and her father Dick are incredibly close. Her mother passed away a little over a decade ago after suffering from Alzheimer’s, and now it appears that Dick is starting the long goodbye as well. Johnson decides to cope with her grief head-on by staging comical accidental deaths for her father with the help of some stuntpeople and special effects crews. She then pictures what his afterlife might be and how it ties into their faith as Seventh Day Adventists. Knowing that she’s about to lose her father twice—once to dementia and again to death—Johnson resolves to celebrate his life while he’s still here rather than mourn the cruelty of the circumstances.
Dick Johnson Is Dead is a beautiful melding of two lives as Dick Johnson worked as a psychiatrist. His lifelong work was to help people cope with their problems, and he continues that work by helping his daughter cope with his impending loss by allowing her to use her art to frame his death. It’s a little macabre and a little cheeky, but it’s also a release valve of sorts. There’s nothing either of them can do to stop what’s coming, so why not at least laugh in the face of death rather than succumb to despair? There’s no denial in Johnson’s work, and if anything, it seems to bring an already close parent-child relationship even closer together by allowing Johnson to capture her father in a way that tells a story about how their relationship has changed.
Through Johnson’s capturing both these fake deaths and her father’s real decline, we get a close-up on what love demands. What we see in Dick Johnson Is Dead is a perfect picture of the selflessness we describe when we talk about love. Johnson is still working to care for her father, but the love enriches them both. It’s not a finite resource that runs out, but rather an opportunity to try and remember for the both of them. Johnson notes her regret that she didn’t capture more of her mother before she succumbed to Alzheimer’s, and it’s clear that the director is working to rectify that mistake by not only capturing her father’s story, but by celebrating his life and how much she means to him. Dick Johnson may not remember, but the camera always will. The act of recording becomes an act of love.
What makes Dick Johnson Is Dead a remarkable film is that Johnson uses her art to construct death in order to cope with it. The film never argues that death isn’t a big deal or that what’s happening to Dick isn’t sad. Rather, it acknowledges these truths and then entrusts our love for each other as a force that’s not meant to subsume grief, but rather give it a healthy framework in which to play out. Dick Johnson Is Dead is not an easy movie despite its warm tone. It’s about living with an aging parent, seeing them slowly slip away, and trying to hold on to the best parts of the relationship. And yet I didn’t finish Dick Johnson Is Dead feeling sad or defeated. I felt the way I do after a good cry—a little shaken and a little exhausted, but ultimately grateful for the experience and the relief.