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Kirsten Johnson Wants to Talk to You About Death

Loss isn’t an easy thing to deal with, but what if you tried to address the inevitable before it happened? That’s the premise of the documentarian’s latest for Netflix, ‘Dick Johnson Is Dead,’ starring her dad.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

At the beginning of her one-of-a-kind cinematic memoir from 2016, Cameraperson, Kirsten Johnson sneezes. It’s a funny kind of introduction to her, but a practical one, too: Even if she’s always behind the camera, this is a film about her. The sneeze lets the audience know that she’s present, and there are periodic reminders of that sprinkled throughout the film—her hand wiping a camera lens, her voice warning a driver that she may ask him to pull over quickly for a shot, her murmuring nervously as a toddler waddles over to an ax buried precariously in a piece of wood. And yet the magic of Cameraperson is that Johnson’s presence is always felt: The sneeze is just our whimsical cue to start thinking about the woman setting up the shot; the rest is easily intuited. She may be invisible, but her gaze—disarming, probing, intense, and empathetic—is unmistakable.

In real life, there’s no missing Johnson’s presence: She checks in at about 6 feet tall and has a taste for ostentatious colors and patterns. This year, however, it’s her latest work that’s making her stand out. Dick Johnson Is Dead, which premieres on Netflix on Friday, is a “long goodbye” to her father as he struggles with dementia. It’s unsurprisingly affecting, but also stunning in its daring and humorous approach—much of the movie follows Johnson and her father as they playfully stage his death in increasingly absurd fashion, before he ascends to a delirious, candy-colored heaven. But even as deeply personal as it is, perhaps what’s most remarkable about Johnson’s docu-fiction hybrid is the way it taps into a universal experience.

When we met for coffee on the last day of the True/False Film Festival in March, we followed what was then understood as COVID-19 protocol: An awkward elbow-bump, followed by an hour-long conversation at close range. And like so many others, I found myself talking to her about my father, who’d missed his 70th birthday party after a heart attack and was told his exhausted arteries, after multiple bypasses and other surgeries, could hold out for only another five years at most. That was 12 years ago.

I share this with Johnson because when my dad finally does pass, the lights will simply go out. There will be no cognitive decline, like Johnson had to experience with her mother, whose death from Alzheimer’s was a key part of Cameraperson; or her father, whose decreasing lucidity inspired their joyous and heartbreaking collaboration in Dick Johnson Is Dead. I was curious whether the many fake deaths that populate the film—the freak accidents of a falling air-conditioning unit or stumbling down a flight of stairs—were her fantasy of a quicker ending. What if she didn’t have to watch her parents drift away from her? What if the lights went out?

“Death is always unexpected,” she counters. “Even if you know you’re dying of cancer, or you know you’re dying of Alzheimer’s, how it comes and when it comes, you just don’t know. And I think that’s the power of documentary work. You never know what’s going to hit you emotionally, what’s going to be meaningful. I’ve had hundreds of hours of experience of thinking I know something and then boom, out of left field just completely misjudging a person or a situation. And I love that.”

Dick Johnson Is Dead is easy to misjudge, too. A documentary about a filmmaker who bears witness to the decline of her dementia-addled father sounds too painful to watch. And while it’s certainly advisable to watch with a fistful of tissues, the miracle of the film is that it’s not only palatable, but often pleasurable, tied to a father-daughter collaboration that reflects the humor, optimism, and lust for life that the two have in common. “I don’t have a wish for the audience’s experience,” says Johnson, “other than wanting to get some laughs out of people. Because I’ve never done that before. I’ve never tried purposefully to make something that would allow people to laugh. But that was one really strong desire.”

Kirsten Johnson

The mix of staged sequences and intimate portraiture keeps Dick Johnson Is Dead off-balance, especially when the two elements collide unexpectedly. There are scenes in which the two Johnsons are out faking deaths on the streets of New York City or traipsing around in a soundstage Heaven, and scenes in which Kirsten guides her father gently through the process of dismantling his life in Washington, like boxing up his psychiatry practice or informing him that he can no longer drive a car. (His resignation to this piece of news is as devastating as any scene in the film.) But Johnson’s camera is alive for those moments when real emotion pierces through the artifice.

“The thing I thought I had to do as a fiction director is to pretend to know what I’m doing,” says Johnson, “when in fact you can allow for the not-knowing, and just work collaboratively.”

Johnson took her own circuitous route to filmmaking. Her parents were Seventh-day Adventists, so moviegoing was not permitted, though as she shares in Dick Johnson Is Dead, her father snuck her and her brother out to see Young Frankenstein when they were kids. When I ask about her cinematic origin story, she tells me her father took them to a series of Australian films at the University of Washington because it seemed “educational,” which is how she got to see Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. (“My dad even got me into Mad Max,” she says, “but my mom pulled me out.”) She was able to purloin a VHS of Harold and Maude from friends, too, but it wasn’t until college that her tastes grew more eclectic; she was particularly drawn to West African films by directors like Ousmane Sembène (Xala) and Djibril Diop Mambety (Touki Bouki).

But for Johnson, a bigger formative experience from childhood was watching slideshows about missionaries in the basement of her church. That became an early window into the world outside her own, and raised some questions that she would follow in the years and decades to come. “You would see a picture of people in Papua New Guinea wearing these beautiful feather outfits and then you’d see a picture of them in pressed khakis and light blue shirts,” she says. “And they had been ‘saved.’ And I was seeing those really early on, and sort of saying, ‘But I really like the first outfit.’”

Once Johnson grew up and got some distance from the church—or, as she puts it, “access to an education that wasn’t telling me the apocalypse was coming”—she started to pursue her interest in the wider world and her path to a career in documentary cinematography became clearer. She studied colonial Africa and African American history. She lived for two years in Senegal and went to film school in Paris. Then she seized the opportunity to film interviews for the Shoah Foundation, which was collecting the testimonies of Holocaust survivors. It would not be the last time she’d encounter victims of global genocide.

Though her career as a cinematographer started mostly with domestic nonfiction with a social justice bent, including an early break shooting Kirby Dick’s Derrida, Johnson’s international experience would eventually become her stock-in-trade. When putting together Cameraperson using leftover footage from previous shoots, she included work she’d done for well-known filmmakers like Dick and Michael Moore (Captain Mike Across America), as well as the historic moment, captured in Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour, when Edward Snowden disclosed NSA secrets to reporters in a hotel room in Hong Kong. Yet Johnson’s career also often has led her to sites of historical atrocities in places like Darfur, Yemen, the Balkans, and Afghanistan—or to a courtroom in Texas, where she heard the case of James Byrd Jr., a Black man dragged by chain from the back of a pickup truck. She became a witness, a collector of stories that would exact a cumulative emotional toll.

The first assembly of Cameraperson was two and a half hours of unrelenting horror. Johnson calls it “the trauma cut.” It was loaded with stories of genocide and rape, glimpses into the worst ward in Nigeria for maternal mortality, and grim monuments to not-so-distant mass tragedy. It’s part of Johnson’s personal mission to bear witness to these events. As she says tearfully on a Criterion supplement about editing the film, “When you see those things, over and over and over again, there is a need to say, ‘I saw that. I saw you. You matter to me.’” But if Cameraperson was to be a true memoir, then she would have to find more of herself in the footage. For that, she turned to editor Nels Bangerter, who came back with a 40-minute cut that proved “how I’m actually a person who’s optimistic, who loves the world, who enjoys my work.”

When reflecting on “the trauma cut,” Johnson explains the stark duality of her experiences. “A lot of things I filmed were [people] in really poor situations,” Johnson says. “But then it can also be hilarious and tender—people surviving and making a way, people with a great sense of humor and a great sense of fashion. And all of that was sustaining and interesting to me, too. I was experiencing pleasure and curiosity at the same time I was encountering this trauma.”

Those same dualities are a defining feature of Dick Johnson Is Dead. This may be a film about Johnson’s father dying, but it’s also a film about her quest to keep him alive forever. Her mother’s reticence to appear on camera kept Johnson from getting footage of her before she was lost to Alzheimer’s—and even then, she proceeded with caution—but her dad would do anything for her, which became an ethical quandary of its own. She knew she wanted a film that would “embody his humor and spirit and soul,” but she also wanted to see what would happen when the lines between life and death, and fact and fiction, were purposefully blurred.

“I wanted to treat the approach as a quest for the unexpected,” she says. “The idea was there was the present, in which he’s alive. There’s the future, he’s dead. And there’s a moment when those two things meet. … And that’s truly a documentary moment, when something unexpected will happen.”

Films like Cameraperson and Dick Johnson Is Dead are part of the vanguard of nonfiction filmmaking, which tosses out antiquated notions of documentary truth in search of more experimental forms. The common denominator here is transparency: Both films do away with the illusion that there’s any distance between the filmmaker and her subject. Without appearing on screen in Cameraperson—or announcing herself through voice-over narration or even using the titles of the films she’s excerpting—Johnson wants the audience to know that there’s a person behind the camera; that she has a relationship with the people in front of the camera. They’re not subjects. They’re collaborators.

An image from ‘Dick Johnson Is Dead’

Dick Johnson Is Dead takes it one step further by making Johnson’s father a partner in mischief, and by proving that emotional truths—about their relationship, about mortality, about a shared design for living—can surface under any circumstances. The films also give Johnson the chance to engage in an open discussion of ethics: What should a cameraperson do, for example, when that toddler starts reaching for the ax? Or how far can she push her father to participate in this project without feeling like she’s being a poor caregiver, or taking advantage of his willingness to do anything for her?

“I’m always looking for a new language,” says Johnson. And part of that search is rooted in the fact that audiences are far more conscious of the camera than they have been in the past, when the fly-on-the-wall illusion that they were watching reality unfold was easier to sustain. “More and more audience members know what it’s like to be filmed and to film,” she says. “They understand more and more that what we see on screen is always a construct. I think that freedom of knowledge is allowing this much more sophisticated language to emerge that is available to both the audience and the makers.”

Dick Johnson Is Dead is that rare combination of intellectually formidable and emotionally accessible, which is a good reflection of what it’s like to spend any time with Kirsten Johnson. There’s hardly a person on earth who hasn’t gone through some version of what Johnson is documenting in the film. And though not everyone has the talent to cheat death through cinematic sleight-of-hand, as Johnson does, they will know how it feels to wish that such a thing were possible.

Johnson sees the making of Cameraperson and Dick Johnson as a chance to understand things about herself she didn’t yet know. She paraphrases an Arthur Miller quote about how “it’s the artist’s quest ‘to reveal what has been hidden.’” But her personal quest is a universal one, too. She cracks open the door to share her journeys, but knows the discoveries she makes are not limited to herself. “[The audience] expands the meaning. They create new questions. They inform it in ways that amplify it,” she says. “For me, there is no completion.”

Scott Tobias is a freelance film and television writer from Chicago. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Vulture, Variety, and other publications.

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