This is a hard film to describe, but Dick Johnson is Dead is a documentary by Kirsten Johnson, who was one of the cinematographers on Citizenfour. It’s about her father, who at the time of the film was in the early stages of dementia. He had been a clinical psychologist. Having lost her mother to Alzheimer’s, she came up with the idea of making a documentary where her father enacts imaginary versions of his own death. She pitched the idea to her dad by asking if they could kill him over and over again on film until he really dies, which made him laugh. And so it began.
The scenarios become increasingly surreal as the film goes on—he acts out his own funeral, there’s a scene where he goes to heaven, and so on—with the result being a docu-fantasia film where the line blurs between reality and fantasy, and a meditation on life and death.
The closest comparison would be The Act of Killing, although this is a much more light-hearted film. The similarity is the sense in which it pushes the envelope of what is and is not a “documentary.”
Most of it is obviously interviews with Dick Johnson about his life, his ideas about how he will die, and about how he would prefer to go. Then they film these very elaborate death scenes, including falling down the stairs and various other ways of dying. It’s one of those things that has to be seen to be believed, and it’s very darkly funny as well as moving. But the thing is that none of the deaths are “’bad”’—they all portray very joyful and playful ways to die. So while his mind is slipping away, you get the idea that Dick Johnson himself is having a blast filming these scenes and going to his own funeral—he’s laughing his way to death, which you really have to admire.
The Blu-Ray includes an audio commentary with Kirsten Johnson and some of her collaborators on the film; a new conversation with Johnson and producers Katy Chevigny and Marilyn Ness, plus co-producer Maureen A. Ryan; and a new interview with sound designer Pete Horner. Also included is a roundtable discussion with Johnson, Michael Moore, Laura Poitras, Joshua Oppenheimer and Mike Mills, plus the trailer and an essay by author and activist So Mayer. The film is also currently available on Netflix.