IMDB Link: Dick Johnson is Dead (2020)
Director: Kirsten Johnson
Writers: Nels Bangerter, Kirsten Johnson
Starring: Michael Hilow, Ana Hoffman, Dick Johnson
Synopsis: A daughter helps her father prepare for the end of his life.
To begin this review, I want to have a look at the synopsis I just gave you, taken from the official IMDB page. This is far from what you would expect when watching this film. That synopsis suggests a much darker tone to the story, which is absolutely not the case. Whilst you can argue that the film is about the preparation of director Kirsten Johnson’s situation, which is the realisation that her father will pass one day in the near future, the approach to the filmmaking is simply not the journey to death. Instead, the film follows Kirsten as she creates a fictional film about her father dying in numerous ways, including scenes of a funeral and several heaven sequences.
It is a peculiar idea for a film to simply imagine your father dying, and in some drastic and horrifying ways. There is a surprising amount of heart to the idea though, as the synopsis is correct on the fact that this is helping Dick come to terms that he will die. However, this is also a healing process for Kirsten, as she also has to come to terms that her father will pass away. Having this chance to have a funeral that he can take part in whilst he’s alive, that he can have true peace in a fictional heaven and imagine being back with his life, having this footage to keep forever is truly special and I thank Kirsten and her team for allowing all of us into their lives.
The film does take a serious tone for the message, but the film is never too tough to watch. This is not only from the clear love and heart that is shown on camera from both Kirsten and Dick, who are having open conversations about their family, her career in film and how much they clearly love each other, but the surprisingly humourous tone that comes with the staged sequences of the deaths. It isn’t even the sequences themselves, but the crew reacting behind the cameras and the preparation that is done to bring these visuals to life. There is one sequence where he is falling to his death down some stairs, something that is terrifying as a thought for those who are old and vulnerable, and yet one clip of Kirsten asking Dick to angle her arm makes everyone around her laugh. This humour is needed for a film of this subject matter, as well as part of the process of dealing with what could be a scary reality.
It should not be a surprise, given that Kirsten Johnson is not only a director but a professional cinematographer, but the cinematography in this film goes way beyond what most documentaries of this style does. It helps that there are fictionalised material in this documentary, lending itself more to flashy camera use and angles instead of purely focusing on capturing the truth, but particularly the heaven sequences stand out. The bright colours, the slow-motion, the confetti and use of costume and production design in these sequences, they all help bring the idea to light and lifts the tone of the film up significantly.
There is one moment in the film which breaks away from this fantasy world and everything we had watched previously in this film, which is also hinted at in one open and honest sequence. This is the scariest moment in the film, and also presents the idea that everything the film is doing and suggesting is not simply for a fun project, but to remind the audience as well as themselves that anything could happen at any moment. Even the filmmaking in this sequence, with the camera pointing away from the focus to allow for privacy and focusing purely on what we can hear, feels completely personal and honest and shows the raw filmmaking that Kirsten is also able to do, even if the filming was more out of respect than what it would look like in the project.
This will most likely end up being the best documentary of the year, and it is certainly in my top films of the year. This is something that everyone should watch, because the story is one that everyone can relate to at some level. The filmmaking is so well crafted, the story is heart-felt and I just want more films for not only Kirsten Johnson as a filmmaker and director, but of her relationship with her father, Dick Johnson. It’s available to watch on Netflix right now, so you better go to your nearest TV or laptop and start streaming.