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Kirsten Johnson: “I wanted a film about death to be funny”

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Kirsten Johnson on confronting – and celebrating – her father's dementia for new Netflix documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead.

Dick Johnson is Dead
Barbara Nitke/Netflix

In Dick Johnson Is Dead , Kirsten Johnson devotes the camera to her father, whose dementia inspires her to stage his multiple fake deaths. Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

American documentary filmmaker and cinematographer Kirsten Johnson is best known for her camera work on documentaries such as Citizenfour and The Oath, as well as her 2016 collage-style doc Cameraperson.

Hot on the heels of her internationally-praised Netflix documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead, a stunning and deeply empathetic film in which she devotes the camera to her father, whose dementia inspires her to stage his multiple fake deaths, she is headed to the Berlinale’s digital Talents programme in March, where she’ll lead workshops as one of the Camera Studio mentors.

We speak about filming her father’s dementia, laughing about death, and how the proliferation of cameras is set to give birth to a new visual language.

In Dick Johnson Is Dead, you grapple with this fear of death, but you also interrogate the very nature of cinema.

Well, thank you for recognising that I’m trying to grapple! (Laughs) I really was trying to grapple with the nature of time itself, the nature of mortality, and the blurry edges between life and death. Dementia is such a peculiar disease because a person remains in body but their mind is transforming. Some of it is additive, but large parts of it are the destruction of the mind, the fragmentation of the self. I’m interested in what is consciousness and what we perceive about the world, and I think cinema speaks to that – it’s a fragmented set of sensations that come together and allows us to feel things and communicate with others.

To explore what was and is happening to my father’s consciousness and what is happening to our relationship through the medium of cinema engages in the same tools, and I find that exhilarating. It did allow me to find ways of keeping my father alive through cinema but also a way of putting him back together as he was falling apart.

Am I right in saying that this film was originally supposed to be a travelogue of sorts?

Yeah. I love the world and I want to be out in it. Part of the cinematography work I’ve done over the years has led me to encounter different kinds of ways of engaging with death. At first, I was thinking of the film as a way of going out into the world, travelling with my father. For example, I’ve been to Vanuatu, Micronesia, and seen an extraordinary collection of clay pots in different shapes that supposedly contain the last breath of a person. I wanted to go to Vanuatu to make the shape of my father’s last breath. I wanted to go to Ghana, where they have this extraordinary tradition of making caskets in surprising shapes. I had all kinds of exuberant ideas, which in the end were not going to be possible considering my father’s increasingly challenging state of dementia.

The concept of a film about staging multiple deaths for a loved one can seem initially difficult to swallow. Were you worried that people would be put off or feel like you were overstepping the bounds of what’s ‘comfortable’?

Beyond that, I was worried on behalf of myself, about the choices I was making. Navigating the ethics of being human is a constant activity and task, and we often learn what a boundary is by overstepping it, stepping back, apologising, and having a new conversation. My father is interested in the contradictions of being human – he’s not quick to judge and in all seriousness and fun, he asked “What do you suppose it means that you want to make a comedy about me dying?” We had fun conversations which led me to the place of saying that I am angry at the dementia, and a part of me is angry at him for getting dementia. We thought we were done when my mother had it! (Laughs)

Those kinds of feelings are very hard to avow for any of us, and I think that certainly in this pandemic moment, we’re all aware of loss and the collectivity of the people who have been lost unnecessarily. And we’re also afraid for ourselves. We have a lot of feelings that are shut down, and fear does that. Fear shuts down feelings. And part of what I’m interested in is how we face fears and how we can do it with generosity, curiosity, kindness, patience, and also realness, because the stakes are very real. But I do hope the film is cathartic – there’s so much grief right now, so I think it’s great that people are being brave and watching the film at all, as you’re right, the concept can be scary for some people initially.

There were tough moments though – my father’s dementia was worsening, and I began to have heart palpitations. I went to see a doctor and he said that what I was experiencing was heartbreak.

It must have been an emotionally taxing film to make, both as a director and as a daughter…

Cameraperson was an emotionally taxing film for me to make, because it involved processing years of exposure to really terrible human situations and human suffering. It was as serious as a heart attack! But with Dick Johnson Is Dead, imagining a way to give myself and the team and my dad hope that we can laugh about some of this, that was fun! It helped us with the emotionality of it. There were tough moments though – my father’s dementia was worsening, and I began to have heart palpitations. I went to see a doctor and he said that what I was experiencing was heartbreak. And it really was. My heart really hurt. You know those expressions: heart on sleeve, heart in your throat? I was feeling them.

The tonal balance you achieve throughout is impressive, especially with the death scenes, which reminded me a lot of Buster Keaton and Monty Python…

My father introduced me to Python, so you’re spot on! John Cleese doing the eulogy for Graham Chapman at his funeral, making people laugh in the church, is exactly what I had in mind! It’s really the funeral, someone has died, and you’re still getting the biggest laugh out of it! What we were afraid of during the making of this movie was how we were going to find the tone. But the error is to imagine you can figure it all out in the beginning. You can’t. You can have a wish that you’re going to find a way to make a film about death and dementia that’s funny, and then you build to it in stages. You have to allow yourself to go to transgressive places, see what the effect is, and return again. That process was a joy.

The fake funeral in the film is particularly memorable and incredibly moving, with your father’s friend, Ray, who is visibly moved. Your father even tells you, watching in the wings: “I think he thinks it’s the real thing.” Talk about blurring the boundaries between what’s real and what’s not!

When we talk about what’s real and what’s not, what’s so deep in that moment is that everyone knew the funeral was not real. But Ray and my father have always talked about who would go first and what a nightmare it will be for the one who stays. So, that’s one level on which it is very real. The other level is in the making of the film – the camera person, John Foster, had a spot and was filming on a tripod. I told him to go off book whenever it struck him that something’s happening away from where I asked him to look. If the action is elsewhere, go there. And John saw that Ray was crying in the corner, and moved his lens. And that for me was this wonderful tension between what we can imagine and what we can observe in life, and our willingness to pivot in an unexpected moment and face what’s happening to us now. It’s what this pandemic has offered us too – this chance to reassess what has meaning to us.

Image for Kirsten Johnson: “I wanted a film about death to be funny”

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

The film also reminded me of a French comedian, Pierre Desproges, who died of cancer at 48 and who often made light of his imminent death and how humour was necessary at all times to desacralise death, war, and suffering. Do you see your film as a desacralising tool, one by which you interrogate the performative aspect of society that necessarily equates dignity with solemnity?

Yes! I don’t know Desproges but I love the sentiment that you’re expressing. I think that for those of us who were raised in religion, we have an understanding of the concept of the sacred. We have feelings about the concept of doing sacrilegious things. I find it all deeply complicated and questionable about whether one can be light about other people’s pain. In many ways, the only person I could have made my film about was my father. Beyond that, I question whether it is my right to play games with the pain of others.

In this case, with my father’s complicity, we were throwing each other under the bus. (Laughs) But even that is right at the edge, given my father’s dementia. My father is at the edge of entering the territory of someone who has less power than me in the dynamic. I’m deeply interested in this edge. We understand the consequences of when things are so sacred that they cannot be interrogated – that’s when abuse and corruption happens. But I love the word ‘irreverence’. But I think the word ‘desacralise’ is powerful and intense, because I do think the sacred in some ways has earned its sacredness, but it’s often because the people who are in a hurry to desacralize things haven’t experienced them.

How is your father now?

He is his wonderful self, but is now in a dementia care facility where they’re taking great care of him. The way the dementia has advanced, it’s become impossible for my brother and I to take care of him and continue our own lives. So that’s been emotionally difficult for everybody, but my father is comfortable and likes it there. It’s both wrenching and a relief.

How was his reaction to watching the film?

Reactions, plural, because he’s seen it several times now! He was a part of the making of it, he saw many edits, he encouraged us to make certain things funnier, he wanted more blood and more twisted limbs for one shot of him falling down the stairs. He’s incredibly proud of me to have made it, but he’s always been proud of me. That’s his relationship to me. Above all, he loves that people are laughing at the movie.

There’s no question that the current cinema industry is not accessible to everyone – it has gatekeepers and it is exclusive in all kinds of ways.

You’ll be in the Talents section this year at the Berlinale – it’s not your first time at the festival, is it?

Correct! Everybody likes to forget that I had a documentary before Cameraperson, called Innocent Until Proven Guilty, that was in the Panorama section in 1999. This year, I’ll be in Talents and I can’t wait. I’m personally very interested in the proliferation of capacity to film in all parts of the world. I think about this idea that we’re all becoming camera-people now, because we all have cell phones in our pockets that have cameras. There’s this incredible potential for an explosion of visual language to emerge. I’m really interested in being in conversations with young cinematographers who want to enter the film world that exists and who want to be in dialogue with the history of cinema, about also those who want to create new visual language. I hope to be able to support new ways of seeing things. And for some people, they’re attempting to create their own language in the face of incredible constraints, as some societies are more closed to certain forms of expression and exploration.

You’ll be doing workshops and holding these conversations online this year. Is communion still possible online in the same way it is during physical events?

I think we all deeply value the communion of the collective experience of watching films together and being there in person to better get to know each other. However, there’s no question that the current cinema industry is not accessible to everyone – it has gatekeepers and it is exclusive in all kinds of ways. I think that this year has made festivals open up and take the lead in imagining ways in which we can have more accessibility for people. That goes into even people who have physical body restraints, as well as the costs involved in attending festivals. All of these things can be circumvented by this new landscape. I feel like my life has been transformed by this capacity to communicate with people all around the world in this time. It was something I was doing before, but all of these changes are an expression of where we’re at historically, and it can have a lot of upsides.

Does this argument about a certain democratisation of film extend to the streaming versus physical screenings?

When we look at storytelling and distribution, we always have to interrogate who has the power. There is something extraordinary for me in knowing that this film I made about my father is reaching a global audience. That’s absolutely unprecedented in my career to have this range of viewership. The question is how do we keep siding for independence and authenticity of the voices of artists and filmmakers, as well as the specificity of the work as opposed to work being pushed to become more global and homogenised in its nature. There’s a tension between the universality of certain subjects and specificity – grappling with one’s fear of death is a universal subject, but it’s in the specificity that my story becomes more interesting to other people, not in watering it down and making it something that is completely familiar.

People seem to be responding to it very positively. Speaking of which, congratulations for making the Oscars shortlist for Best Documentary!

That’s quite something, especially this year when there have been so many extraordinary films! The depth of the documentary field is really something to be contended with in the cinema world. So I’m really proud of being a part of that cohort of so many extraordinary films. If you don’t mind, I have this thing I do now – it’s a little bit of a schtick but also interesting for me – can I ask you the question: How would you wish to die, David?

I’d like to die in a way that would give a medical examiner or pathologist a headache. If they find my body and it stumps some people, that would be fun!

(Laughs) I love it! You essentially want to punk everyone with your death! You make me want to imagine a death that would create a puzzle for them! I have often wanted for people to laugh out loud when they hear about how I died. That would make me very happy! But your version of that is so good! Can I ask you one more question?

Of course.

Have you ever talked about death with your parents?

I have. I’ve been lucky in that way. I think we came to the conclusion, if it’s possible, that funerals should be ideally celebrations of life as opposed to holding an event for death.

Well, can I recommend doing a funeral for them while they’re still alive? I highly recommend it!