By Cameron Kaercher
Kirsten Johnson has been an unsung backbone of documentary filmmaking for the past couple of decades. She has served as a cameraperson for award-winning documentaries like “Citizenfour” and “Fahrenheit 9/11,” while also directing her own feature docs. Her 2016 debut feature was a collage, an autobiography and a travelogue all wrapped up under the title “Cameraperson.”
Her second feature film increases and emphasizes her incredible talent for telling intimate stories that can reach everyone.
Kirsten Johnson lost her mother in 2007 because of Alzheimer’s, and not long after that, her father was starting to show early signs of Alzheimer’s himself.
Thus, “Dick Johnson is Dead” started to form.
She wanted to see her father as he really was before losing him. While Mr. Johnson is still alive, his daughter tries to cope with losing him through this film. The documentary shows him throughout the day, and Kirsten’s creativity flourishes as she writes and directs scenes in which Dick Johnson “dies.” This documentary/therapy session lets her exercise all of her fears about losing her father. and lets her celebrate him while he is still alive.
Kirsten Johnson serves as a co-writer for the film with her long-time editor, Nels Bangerter. These staged moments they have written up are darkly creative. Think of it as a whimsical “Final Destination.”
One minor way “Dick Johnson is Dead” is interesting is how it deconstructs filmmaking. As a documentary, it tries to capture Kirsten Johnson making these scenes where her father dies, so it is a making-of feature inside the documentary. As they practice Dick falling down the stairs, his daughter directs him on where his hands should lay. Other beautiful scenes and moments can’t be spoiled on paper, but must be experienced on the screen.
As a pure documentary experience, Johnson excels in giving the viewer a fly-on-the-wall experience, despite being actively involved in what is going on.