• Through the Trees

Review: Dick Johnson is Dead

Kirsten Johnson has crafted an endlessly inventive documentary on mortality and dementia

Written by Katherine McLaughlin

In Kirsten Johnson’s debut feature film, she turned the camera on herself, transforming her twenty-five years’ experience as a cinematographer into the singular and poignant documentary Cameraperson. For her follow-up Johnson places the focus on her father, Richard, and imagines life without him in a series of fictional and surreal scenarios where he dies and ascends to heaven. It sounds upsetting, and at points it will probably have you reaching for the tissues, but the Johnsons’ dark sense of humour and Richard’s game attitude also makes the film a complete hoot to watch.

Johnson lost her mother to Alzheimer’s in 2007 and when she realises her father is starting to “disappear into dementia” too, she relocates him to her one-bedroom apartment in New York to take care of him. They spend their time with her children, eating chocolate cake like there’s no tomorrow and daring death to come at them. As time ticks by, Johnson talks to her father about his treasured memories, his beliefs and the relationships he has nurtured. She asks him the important questions about his formative years and even literally takes him down memory lane.

Multi-layered in its approach, it marvels at the imagination, craft and power of film, and the way it often allows people to ponder tough subjects such as mortality. It also works as a beautiful celebration of Johnson’s father and confronts the inevitability of the death of loved ones, specifically a parent, in a profound way. In simply making the film, Johnson creates lasting memories of her dad – and what a wonderful thing that is in itself. She even allows her 86-year-old psychiatrist father to attend his own funeral, listening sneakily at the door to the emotional eulogy his best friend gives while a congregation of close friends and patients relay stories about his dedication, wit and warmth. A ridiculous, laugh-inducing tune closes the ceremony and has to be seen to be believed.

With Dick Johnson is Dead, Johnson has crafted a playful, endlessly inventive and charming tribute to the magic of cinema and a deeply personal and affectionately made documentary about the father-daughter bond, mortality and dementia. It’s a truly captivating and insightful film.

Available to watch on Netflix from 2nd October.


Director: Kirsten Johnson

Screenwriters: Nels Bangerter, Kirsten Johnson

Cast: Ana Hoffman, Dick Johnson, Kirsten Johnson

Distributor: Netflix

Running Time: 89mins

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