The comical documentary ‘Dick Johnson is Dead’ highlights death in untraditional ways

Documentarian Kirsten Johnson uses her art form to cope with her father’s dementia.

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On the early Friday morning of March 6, people eagerly lined the alley by the Blue Note hoping to get a ticket to one of the biggest documentaries of the True/False Film Fest. The Netflix original film “Dick Johnson is Dead” is the story of a daughter who takes a different approach to dealing with her father’s upcoming death by taking it head-on.

As this is my first time at True/False, I entered the Blue Note not knowing the amazing and emotional experience I had found myself in. The theater was packed full of people from all over. The woman sitting next to me had heard about the festival for years from her friends who live in Columbia, and this year she finally gave in and drove here from Kansas to see what all the hype was about.

As the lights dimmed down, the theater fell silent, excited to see what director Kirsten Johnson had in store for us.

The Johnson family had always had to suffer through the same path of death. Their loved ones would slowly fade away as their memory decreased. Richard “Dick” Johnson, a retired psychiatrist, had to take care of his mother in her last days, in addition to taking care of his wife as she suffered from Alzheimer’s. Now, he doesn’t want to be a burden to his daughter as he is in the early stages of dementia. Kirsten assures him that it would be different this time. “You want to make a movie about you dying?” she asked her father, the lovable man she called her best friend. He excitedly agreed.

“I was reminded of the way film catalyzes certain interactions and that might give me a way to start imagining that I could interact with my father’s dementia in a different way,” Kirsten Johnson said in the Q&A after the showing. “ … During my mother’s dementia, I felt like I had cried for seven years straight and I was not emotionally prepared to do that again. This gave me a way to imagine doing it differently.”

This comical documentary follows the timeline of moving Dick Johnson from their beloved home in Seattle to Kirsten Johnson’s one-bedroom apartment in New York. Mixed in between their real-life of having to deal with his dementia, they show different hilarious ways that he could die accidentally, along with what he imagined heaven to be like.

Another big part of the movie was shining a light on all the people who helped make the movie and who were a part of the Johnsons’ everyday life. Showing behind-the-scenes and interviewing people such as the stuntmen and Dick Johnson’s caregiver was Kirsten Johnson’s way of showing respect to them and giving a voice to the voiceless.

I haven’t watched a lot of documentaries before but I think this one sets the bar high for all the documentaries I’ll watch in the future. “Dick Johnson is Dead” will have you laughing and sobbing not knowing whether it's from sadness or joy. Even though this movie relates more to people who have dealt with the sickness of a loved one, it will still touch the hearts of those who haven’t been through that. It has a classic documentary feel from its creative transitions to fun camerawork which ties it up perfectly with the untraditional outlook on death. And the experience of watching this outstanding movie at True/False Film Fest makes it even better.

If you find yourself in CoMo this weekend for True/False, “Dick Johnson is Dead’ should be high on your list. Other showings this week include Saturday, March 7 at 7 pm in Jesse Hall and Sunday, March 8 at 7 pm in the Missouri Theatre.

Edited by George Frey | gfrey@themaneater.com

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