Why did you become a documentarian? Why not just make fiction films, where the big bucks are?” asks Richard ‘Dick’ Johnson of his daughter Kirsten Johnson, the director of this unique film.
Kirsten, a documentary filmmaker for 30 years, says, “Real life is often much more fascinating than what you can make up.” When the end credits of Dick Johnson is Dead roll, it’s impossible not to agree.
When her octogenarian father is diagnosed with dementia, for Kirsten it is history on a repeat.
Barely seven years ago, Kirsten’s mother had died after falling down the stairs. But Dick says how he lost his wife even before the horrific incident… to Alzheimer’s.
Seeing her father headed in the same direction, Kirsten comes up with an eccentric solution to come to terms with the impending death—as and when it will occur, for occur it will. The father-daughter duo films an intimate elegy that aims to do the unthinkable—conquer death.
So, we get to see a series of Dick’s deaths. He dies falling down the stairs like his wife, he dies when an air-conditioner falls on his head, is fatally hit by a car, and so on and so forth. Before the mocking scenes translate into heartbreak, Dick springs back up; ready to face death yet again.
The film, which debuted at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, is more than these frivolous enactments. Kirsten turns the camera towards the affected, like Dick’s high-school crush, and captures their perspectives of death. These human moments juxtaposed with the dark humour of Dick’s deaths make it more than relatable in these times.
Of course, there are moments of overwhelming emotion, like when Dick breaks down learning that he is not allowed to drive anymore. The car, to Dick, is more than a means of transportation; it’s his freedom. In another instance, he is candid about the idea of euthanasia and tells his daughter that she has his permission to euthanise him, if needed. When she asks him about the right time to do it, he laughs: “Pass it by me before you do it.”
The charm of Dick Johnson and his contagious laugh make this a bittersweet watch. As the film comes to a close, we witness the deterioration of Dick’s memory. He misses their house and walks past it. He admits that he is not able to make new memories. He begins to lose his personality, the idea of ‘I’, which differentiates one human from another. And yet, this film doesn’t end on a mawkish, depressing note. It inspires hope in the face of inevitable death. This is a winning, inspiring documentary on what it means to face one’s mortality.