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'Dick Johnson Is Dead': Kirsten Johnson Stages Her Dad's Demise

By Ron Deutsch

In 2016, Kirsten Johnson, who was then most known for her work as a cinematographer on some of the most challenging and acclaimed documentaries of our time, ranging from Kirby Dick's This Film Is Not Yet Rated and The Invisible War, to Laura Poitras' The Oath and Citizenfour, released the feature-length film Cameraperson, which she directed. The film used footage from many of the films she shot over the last quarter-century to tell her own story. It grew out of an awareness of how she was compartmentalizing some of the vicarious traumas she experienced in her job, how it has affected her and, in general, how such events in our own lives affect us all. The film was very well received, winning many awards, including IDA's Best Editing prize that year. 

Now, she returns with a new film, Dick Johnson Is Dead, which premiered October 2 on Netflix, having already taken the Special Jury Award for Innovation in Nonfiction Storytelling at Sundance earlier this year.

The first thing you need to know is that Dick Johnson is Kirsten's father, a retiring psychiatrist who has begun a descent into dementia. The second thing is that Kirsten loves her father very much. So much so, that she goes about killing her father repeatedly throughout the film. This becomes a way for both daughter and father to deal with what is happening to both of them as they come to terms with his inevitable real death, as well as have a lot of quality and fun time together.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

DOCUMENTARY: Two films immediately came to mind watching your film—Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing (2012) and Alan Berliner's First Cousin, Once Removed (2012). The former I thought about with your various fantasy sequences, both in the staged deaths of your father and of the depiction of heaven. And in Alan's film, he wondered if perhaps there are different kinds of Alzheimer's, depending on the person it was affecting. Like in his cousin's case, he was a poet and so even with dementia he often spoke in rhyme. So I was wondering if you thought this was some kind of psychiatrist's Alzheimer's your father was experiencing. 

KIRSTEN JOHNSON: I love Alan's film so much. I'm so glad you thought of both of those movies, though it's funny that it's the first time I'm consciously thinking of The Act of Killing, but I think you're spot on. It was not in my mind as an inspiration, but clearly it resonates. 

Immediately when you made the connection to Alan's gorgeous film that there may be different kinds of Alzheimer's, or each Alzheimer's may be as specific as the person who has it, it makes me think about my mother, and in some way, her Alzheimer's was very spacial, but when you think that this is a way that a psychiatrist might feel with dementia.... hmmm, let's open that up. 

One, my father, differently from my mother, could recognize from the beginning that it was happening to him. My mother never expressed any—she could not acknowledge or maybe even access the idea that she had dementia. My father has known sort of from the moment that we all recognized it—which I think was a little bit late—he was very clear that he has it and could speak about it, kind of with a kindness to himself, kind of like he had with my mother, which was, “Your mind has been changed by a disease.” And I mean in the same way that he thought generously towards people with schizophrenia or bipolar disease. His position is, “This is intriguing and this changes you.” So I think he would not admit to being as threatened by it, certainly as my mother felt. This is what it is and now, How to we cope with it, right? 

The thing I was so afraid of losing—and that I've lost in some way, but not completely—is his extraordinary capacity to listen. As a psychiatrist, but, for me, as a father, and certainly what people have told me, the way he listened allowed for one to speak more. Now that the dementia is affecting the continuity, he can't necessarily keep track of what I've said longitudinally, but the quality of the listening is still there. So I would say with this film, his enthusiasm and his openness to making it is an expression of his listening. The skills you have as a listener, like someone is on the verge of going a little bit further if you stay silent: I learned that from him and from filming, though my impulse to speak is so great that it's usually only a camera that stops me. (She laughs.)

D: In some way this film is the perfect antithesis of Cameraperson, where you spoke about your invisibility behind the camera and the vicarious traumas in documenting other people's stories. (Early in her career, Johnson shot many interviews with Holocaust survivors for the Shoah Foundation.) You can't get any closer of a subject than your father, and you're all over this film. And also, you again seem to explore the nature of cinema, filmmaking, and what goes on in front of and behind the camera.

KJ: I'm trying to be as vicarious as I can in this film. (She laughs.) I often have this wish after encounters with people I have filmed, that I could write a novel about this day. Or sort of wishing that the movie we're filming could allow for even more of the person's contradictions and complexities, but there's rarely time for that in whatever form—not time in the movie or not time in life. But in some ways, my father and I belong to each other. And so permission to go into the contradictions and complexities is present in this project. Who else could I keep killing until they really die, but my own father? We made lots of terrible psychiatrist jokes throughout the whole time. I woke up in a cold sweat after naming it Dick Johnson Is Dead thinking, “I can't do this!” And then I asked him about it and he laughed, “No, I'll just stay alive forever if we name the movie that.” 

I'm so interested in the line between a nonfiction film, a fiction film, a documentary, a narrative film. I think the same spectrum is true between life and death. There are parts of my father that are dead already, and there are parts of my mother that are still alive. So I'm really interested in how far the spread is between these two things. 

Nels [Bangerter, the film's editor] and I were really trying to solve different problems with the funeral scene. When he came up with the solution of having the casket blink on and off and then fade away, I was like, “Oh my God, it is the metaphor for death.” Like sometimes the light switch just goes off, and sometimes it's a slow fade, right? But with presences that linger or that reemerge, the resurrection...all of these ideas I feel they just bounce around in my own experience with my father and now have manifested in this film. And yes, I love my father and to talk about my father, but for me, there's something about time, consciousness, cinema, mortality... for all of us. That's what I'm really trying to get at.

There's no question in my mind of the shared mission my Dad and I gave ourselves, which was, “We're going to make a funny film about dementia and death.” That mission—the sort of impossibility of it— really helped. So that the camera as metaphor for cinema itself, the shared creative act as a way of transforming what could be only pain and grief and loss, and transform that into play and performance and games. 

I'm thinking about COVID now, and how unexpected, unpredicted things happen. Some epidemiologist may have seen it coming, but most of us didn't. For me there is that relationship between past, present and future. We don't see the future coming. That is its very nature. And that was one of my guiding principles about how to approach this film structurally, because that happens to me all the time as a cameraperson. Something will just completely blindside me when I'm shooting. And usually when that happens I know that this footage is probably going to be in the film, because then the audience is blindsided the way I have been. So that was structurally how our approach was. Can we just let documentary do what documentary is going to? I'm going to film and I'm not going to see it coming that my father says to me, “I'm your little brother now.” I did not see that coming. Then you can, sort of, retro-engineer these moments of fantasy back into and bump them up against these unexpected things that hit us while we were filming the documentary part.

D: Staging your father's death in different ways reminded me of the simulation training pilots go through, in the sense of repeating a crisis situation so that when or if it occurs, they can concentrate on it with less emotion. Do you think the impetus to create these sequences was a way to deal with the eventuality of your dad's death?

KJ: Yeah, and you know I won't be able to. (She laughs.) You know I'm fooling myself, but I'm giving it my all. Really. Sticking with him. I'm not abandoning him and he's not abandoning me. Even though I would say Alzheimer's, dementia, it does such strange things to a person. It expands time in such a strange way, it becomes necessary to try to take care of them on a 24/7 basis... and you cannot do that. You cannot give up your life to be completely present for a person with Alzheimer's because of their clock. They've expanded time and you cannot function in relation to their clock all the time. So sometimes you have to protect yourself from it.

I think being engaged in the task of making a film, trying to figure it out, and make one that functions in all these unexpected and complicated ways has allowed me to focus on craft. It's an act of trying to make something funny out of something so painful for me. It gave me this sort of impossible task that then brought pleasure and allowed me to laugh with my father, rewatch the movie over and over again... and to talk to my children about how we're going to kill Grandpa. We had lots of conversations with my kids about what was happening to grandpa—why does he keep repeating things? 

And it also popped new space for my dad. He hadn't picked up the clarinet and played, but then when we had Benny Goodman playing on the fantasy heaven set, he was swinging. And that hadn't happened in years! So it made new things possible. That's the other thing about dementia: We're so afraid of it that we want to shut that person away, when in fact, parts of that person are still there. And you can keep finding ways to engage with the person who is still there.

Those heaven fantasy scenes were created by necessity around not knowing if my father would, for example, be willing to take off his socks and show his toes. We didn't know if he could play the clarinet. We didn't know if he'd be willing to dance. So the idea of the masks came out of not knowing whether my father could actively participate in certain things. Shooting in slow motion came out of the fact that the dementia was having him go into these short-time frame-loops. So that if we could stretch out time, then we could be with him in emotional space. So if he smiled for a second, we could turn that into a smile that lasted for several minutes. 

So all of those ideas literally until the moment he did, there was the question of whether he could do something or not. It wasn't just a space for actors to do things, it was a space for what costumes are we using, what physical movement are we doing, what does the décor look like. So everything was modular in that way, collaged and improvised in the moment in response to what my father was capable of. It really blew my mind. We had this incredible production team. Maureen Ryan (1971; Man on Wire) organized it in this unbelievable way so that no crew member felt like they were wasting their time and then having to redo it.

D: I have a friend whose mother is suffering with dementia. I started telling her about your film because I thought maybe it would help her in some way, but she quickly shut me down. She said she wouldn't watch the film. So I'm wondering about people who might be wary of seeing a film about Alzheimer's or death and refuse to see it. What would you say to them?

KJ: Well, I do think we keep our sanity by learning to put walls around some of these things. It's interesting to think about my dad, who was a psychiatrist and had a 50-minute period where he talked to people—and then you make an appointment for next week. It's this container of time that a psychiatrist uses. It's so critically important that you shut that door very clearly at the end of those 50 minutes. I would say for me the camera is the thing that opened it all for me. But also in the pandemic period, I've understood a little bit more about detachment and needing to put some doors in. I think we're all, each in our different ways, so emotionally filled up, and the dimensions of it are so unknowable, that suddenly I see in myself why people detach or deny or do not speak of certain things or close certain doors. I think sometimes you know when you're at your edge. 

When I was bringing this film out into the world, I was so scared. You know, What's going to happen to the person whose loved one really did die falling down the stairs? So [after] screening number two at Sundance, this woman comes up to me and says, “My father died falling down the stairs.” And she's looking at me with a total blank face. Then she adds, “And my son tried to push me down the stairs and kill me, and that's how we found out he's a schizophrenic.” But then, she's like, “I love this movie so much!” and just started cracking up laughing. It was unbelievable. 

So in some way I don't want to give people a trigger warning for this film. I think that anything that becomes the sort of a generic thing we have to do, like a trigger warning before screening this thing, I don't think that's a sophisticated enough mechanism for asking these questions. I think there are legitimate questions, because I do think images and stories can mark us, damage us, can bring back up that which we are not ready to contend with.

There was a bunch of people who watched the film and told me they were almost choked because they were laughing and crying at the same time. I think this film is about release. It's about the body doing physical things in relation to emotional information. And back to The Act of Killing, that man gagging at the memory of killing people—a sound unlike you've ever heard a human body make. That's why it was so profound. This man has killed a lot of people and this is what it's done to his body. There's many moments in films where you realize the body can do things we don't know. That was certainly one of those moments. But I think this kind of release is an admission of our humanness, like the freedom of the body is an admission of our humanness. And the wish to hold it all tight and inside, and to not cry or laugh, is in some ways a denial of our humanity. There's a level of absurdity to this life that is extreme. 

So on the one hand, I think people need to know that maybe the film isn't safe for them to watch right now. And on the other hand, we've got to crack this stuff open because the not-talking about it, the aloneness, the denial, the fear, anxiety—all of those things do the opposite of what creative collaboration and connection and relationship and warmth does, right? So it becomes brittle as opposed to being supple. So all respect for anyone who says, “I need to protect myself from this right now.” But then a question mark, I think, because none of us really knows what we need. I think it's a really tricky territory because we can never assume we know how dangerous or fragile someone's inner experience is. I don't think we can know that for other people. 

D: Do you think the film has changed the kind of grieving you'll have or are already having?

KJ: Yes, absolutely. It totally and utterly changed. Like with Camerperson, it's not finished when we've locked the edit, and there's the sound mix. It's opened up all these conversations and relationships for me. Like the one you and I are having is changing my relationship to death and grieving. The conversation I had last night with these college students is changing my relationship. And it's all making me want to call my dad one more time, just touch him one more time. It feels like a process where I'm fully aware that I am in the process of anticipatory grief, grief and celebration simultaneously. 

If I hadn't made this film, I think I would have been filled with resentment. I think I would have felt it was unfair that both of my parents got dementia. I think I would have resented it as a daughter taking care of my father, that I was being a “dutiful daughter” even though I wanted to. So that making the film allowed me to do something for myself as I was doing something for my father. And I think without really working hard to figure out how to laugh, I'm not so sure I would have been able to laugh at this situation.

There are deep taboos. To speak of death is a deep taboo. To want to kill your parents is a big taboo. To be a filmmaker is a big taboo...and that's the risk of it. We have to be in that territory of the risk of it. Not vicariously, not cheaply, not flippantly. This is a very serious movie for me. I tried very seriously, very hard, to make it funny. 

Ron Deutsch is a contributing editor with Documentary. He has written for many publications including National GeographicWiredSan Francisco Weekly and The Austin American-Statesman