‘Dick Johnson Is Dead’: The Artifice of Documentary

Dick Johnson dies many times in Kirsten Johnson’s playful ode to her father ‘Dick Johnson is Dead’

“I was trying to think of something to say, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what’s coming. His moments of forgetfulness are going to spread. He’ll ask the same questions over and over again. His eyes will get that distant look. And his personality will begin to fade away. And he won’t be able to follow what I’m saying so I won’t be able to ask for any more advice. And the whole time we’ll just be trying to get by.” ~ ‘Dick Johnson is Dead’

The documentary genre has always been the most complex. I remember the controversy over so-called historical inaccuracies in Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and screenwriter Mark Boal’s defense: “This is not a documentary. It’s a dramatization.”

This defense always stayed with me, and I was surprised more people didn’t question it. It assumes, of course, that documentaries must adhere to a different standard of accuracy, a higher standard, with the implication being that narrative films that feature actors who play real people, or who are inspired by real people, aren’t required to follow that same standard. They can dramatize, whatever that means.

Aren’t documentaries dramatizations? Footage that has been sliced and diced and presented in a particular way to generate a particular response? Why do we expect them to be so accurate when we know how they’re made?

As E.H. Carr reminds us in his seminal work What is History?, “Our answer, consciously or unconsciously, reflects our own position in time, and forms part of our answer to the broader question, what view we take of the society in which we live.”

In other words, there may not be such a thing as accurate because history is always told by historians, flesh and blood human beings in the present who have their own built in biases about the past. Facts have no meaning. Historians give facts their meaning by turning past events into narratives. Documentarians are historians who write with a camera.

The best documentaries aren’t the “issue” documentaries that seem in vogue lately, nor are they the dry “educational” documentaries that lack any artistic stamp. Instead, the documentaries that linger are the ones that deliberately play with the form, winking at us along the way, calling attention to the very artifice of the genre. Dick Johnson is Dead (2020) is a perfect example.

Dick Johnson is Dead is best described as a playful experiment in which Kirstin Johnson deals with her dad’s dementia by staging a series of fake death scenes and filming them. Like Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (2012), Dick Johnson is Dead is a deeply personal story about a family, and it uses fictional filmmaking techniques to create a distance between Dick and the audience.

In this case, we’re essentially watching a movie about the making of a movie. Johnson and her crew set up a camera, decorate a set, and even hire stunt men, all to capture on camera her dad’s fake death.

Why? By confronting it head-on, the sting of his inevitable passing will be less painful. By making a series of movies that feature Dick’s fake death, the reality of his impending death becomes less, well, real, at least for the cameraperson in charge.

The camera has always been a tool to reflect a cameraperson’s perception of reality, transmitted through a lens that can never equal the human eye. This means, by default, that the images captured can never be totally accurate. The camera can never be an immersive tool because its very presence creates a distance between the cameraperson and the subject, between accuracy and artificiality.

You see, Dick Johnson is Dead is as much of a constructed work of cinema as Zero Dark Thirty, as much of a dramatization, and that’s okay. All documentaries are. What matters more, I think, is whether we are moved by what we see.

By the end of Dick Johnson is Dead, I was moved. I thought of my two grandmothers, both of whom suffered from dementia. I thought of my own mother, who I worry will one day forget my name. I thought of the memories I’ve made and how quickly they will fade when I’m older.

I don’t know what it means for a film to be accurate. I just know that Dick Johnson is Dead, for all its artifice, feels as true as anything I’ve seen.

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