Of the many phantasmagoric scenes in Kirsten Johnson’s new documentary, Dick Johnson is dead, perhaps the most surreal occurs towards the beginning of the film.
Kirsten’s father, retired psychiatrist C. Richard “Dick” Johnson, lies in an open coffin in front of a church, with his eyes closed. “I think he looks really dead,” Kirsten comments, adjusting the position of her hands.
“Goodnight, sweet world,” Dick murmurs.
“It’s so strange to see your friend in a coffin. This is not good for me, “says Dick’s best friend Ray, clearly unnerved.” I keep reminding myself this is a movie.
To address her fears about her father’s mortality, Kirsten decided to make a film that would blur the line between fiction and real life: she would repeatedly stage his death in scenes imagined as a form of pre-traumatic stress therapy. “. He kills him in ways that are as unlikely as they are trivial: we see Dick being hit by an air conditioner, falling down the stairs, being hit by a construction beam.
The film moves smoothly between Dick’s fictional deaths and real life, following him as he moves from his Seattle home to Kirsten’s one-bedroom apartment in New York, spends time with his grandchildren, and participates to doctors’ appointments.
When filming began, Dick was starting to show signs of dementia. While still practicing as a psychiatrist, he made mistakes in prescribing medication and began booking patients twice. While older memories were strong, more recent ones, like news of a colleague’s recent death, didn’t stick.
“I think part of me knew, even when I started the project, that the loss was coming,” says Kirsten. New Scientist. “I wasn’t quite emotionally brave enough yet to consciously admit it to myself when I first came up with the idea.”
Joyful and absurd sequences are interspersed throughout the film, in which Dick is reunited with his late wife Katie Jo. Despite his initial concerns that he started the project too late to capture his father’s entire personality, the film is a moving document of Dick’s later years, filled with his clear joie de vivre and sense of humor.
“We really wanted to create something fun together,” says Kirsten. “We knew the extremity of dementia is so powerfully sad, painful and upsetting, there had to be an equally strong backlash.”
“I was definitely worried about ethics – at what point he might not have an agency and be unable to participate as a collaborator,” she says. “I set very clear rules for myself that if he didn’t want to do something, we wouldn’t do it.”
Kirsten already knew of the gradual deterioration of neurodegenerative diseases: her mother Katie Jo had died of Alzheimer’s a decade earlier. The experience left the father and daughter with a keen awareness of what Dick might have in store, which gives rise to the film’s most touching moments.
“His moments of forgetfulness will spread,” Kirsten says at one point in the documentary. “He will always ask the same questions. His eyes will have that distant look. And his personality will start to fade … And all the time we will try to get by. “
The film leans on the uncomfortable truth of pain as a byproduct of love. Face the reality of dementia with tenderness and frame death as an inevitability and creative opportunity. The real Dick Johnson is still alive, and as long as the film lives, he will be too.
Dick Johnson is dead is available on Netflix
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