Kirsten Johnson on using cinema to bend time, defy death and process pain

Kirsten Johnson.

In making her Academy Award-shortlisted documentary Dick Johnson is Dead, Kirsten Johnson was keen to ask questions of what cinema can do.

The filmmaker has worked for decades as cinematographer, with 50+ credit list that boasts films such as the Oscar-winning Citizen Four and Oscar-nominated The Invisible War.

In 2016, she helmed Cameraperson, an autobiographical collage that used footage from her cinematography career.

Dick Johnson is Dead is her follow up, a celebration and commemoration of her father, who has Alzheimer’s.

As Johnson tries to cope with his disease, she stages, with the assistance of stunt people, ways for her father to die. We see him get hit by a falling air conditioner, fall down a flight of stairs, and even attend his own funeral. She creates fantastical scenes of her father in heaven.

Described as a love letter between father and daughter, it was made with the hope that the power of cinema might help Johnson “bend time, laugh at pain” and keep her father “alive forever.”

The film premiered at Sundance in 2020, where it won the Jury Prize in Innovation for Nonfiction Storytelling.

Johnson is one of the speakers at this week’s Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC), discussing innovation in filmmaking and creative risk-taking. She spoke to IF ahead of her session.

I read some interviews with you about Dick Johnson is Dead, where you said that you wanted to “break cinema” in making the film. You’ve also said that you’re at a stage of your career now where you’re interested in making something only if it pushes boundaries for yourself and also the people that you work with. Can you elaborate on that idea?

What was so evocative about the act of the film – in some ways it was making a film, but other ways it was a true experiment – was that cinema has these tools that are not unlike the tools of our consciousness, in which we take in sounds and images, and we construct them to understand what we’re experiencing.

But some of the things that we experience are really hard to understand, like time itself. What is time, especially in relation to the people that we love most?

In an edit room, you can have a timeline and you can put things that you’ve shot in an order on that timeline. You can move time around. But how can we go further into that? How can we push what that means, so that making a film is not just something that we construct in order to translate our experiences to others, but so that it might be something that’s completely activated?

I haven’t yet formulated any answers to this, but the questions that emerge from making Dick Johnson are so exciting to me. There’s no question that making the film changed the way I related to my father’s dementia. It also changed what he was able to do. We were able to stretch time, and enter into his time by filming in slow motion. I was able to communicate with him in different ways than I could just by talking to him.

And, of course, the impulse was I cannot stand the idea that my father is going to disappear. I cannot stand the idea that he’s going to die. And somehow it’s not just that this film has captured his essence in a bottle; there’s something more strange happening than that. That’s what I’m interested in terms of what I cinema can do.

The idea of “breaking cinema” was interesting to me, because the film also reflects on the power of images; how images can be immortal. But also on the idea of cinema as a form of escapism as well.

We’ve always thought of escapism as this negative word, right? And it is connected to the idea of not facing the terrible things that we must face; the injustices of this world, the pain of this world. But in another way, escapism can be something that doesn’t only come with denial. It can say, “Yes, this is happening. I wish a different world.” You think about things like afro-futurism, where writers have imagined worlds in which racism is no longer the violent force that it is right now. You could say that is escapism from the world, or a form of creating resilience, a way to survive, and a way to remain optimistic. That’s the type of thing I was interested in here, as opposed to only feeling impotent, giving up, allowing a person to drift away – how might the relationship between me and my dad stay alive and shimmering as long as possible?

Humour is part of that, and the film is funny. Humour can be used as a form of resilience. But it could be seen as escapism, too. Often it helps you deal with difficult things that are happening in your life.

The funniest people that I’ve met in my life, they are amongst the ones who have faced the greatest awfulness in the world. That is not to say that is true of every survivor of terrible things. But among genocide survivors that I’ve spoken to, among abuse survivors that I’ve spoken to, are people who are hilarious. That’s always been fascinating to me; how could you go through such horrific events and still be able to laugh?

Seeing it as a pattern over time, having filmed in in six different countries and in the aftermath of five different genocides. It’s a pattern and there’s something to it, for sure. That things are so horrific for some people that then they are able to engage in that world with a sense of absurdity and humour, that’s always been inspiring to me.

‘Dick Johnson is Dead’.

One thing that’s quite interesting from a documentarian perspective is that you pull away some of the curtain of the filmmaking process in the film. You also put your own uncertainty as a filmmaker in it at certain points; like whether you’re pushing your dad too far, for example. Why did you want to include that?

All of that came out of Cameraperson. It was such a joy to learn from making Cameraperson; that there was evidence of all of us behind the camera in the footage. It’s not something that you think about when you’re focused on filming other people. But you are aware that it is a team of people who makes a film, and they make it in relation to and with the people that they’re filming. But I became obsessed with this idea: Could we see everyone who’d been part of a film in the footage that was on screen? Was there a way to do that? Cameraperson part of that exploration.

Then when I came upon thinking about stunt people, it just became incredibly fascinating to me. Here are these people who render themselves invisible on the screen; they’re actually risking their lives to not be seen. That just felt like a metaphor for me for so many things. I’m really into acknowledging everybody who is engaged in the process as opposed to hiding it or bowing to a hierarchy.

It’s interesting, making a film; you make a film in relation to other people. It’s not like you’re just a passive observer.

Absolutely. You’re in a relationship with those people, and that relationship is the images that emerge.

How much of the film that you envisioned in the beginning is in the film now?

None of it looks anything like what I imagined. I felt like I was failing the whole time I was making it because I was overcome with feelings of grief that I had started too late and that the father that I had known was already gone.

I had these over-the-top visions of fabulous stunts we were going to do, and I imagined the conversations that we would have. Yet so much of what he was capable of doing had already ended before I began. So I had this real sense, most of the time, like, ‘Oh, I’ve lost him already’. There was a moment deep into finishing the film that I just wept, because, in fact, I could see that his energy, his spirit, is in the movie. That was a huge relief to me. So I would say probably that’s the only thing that I hope for that I didn’t think was possible, was to have his essence be sparkling in the movie.

But otherwise, it’s all totally unfamiliar to me. That was true for Cameraperson. That’s true for this movie. That part of the “breaking cinema” work that I’m trying to do, is I’m trying to ask questions of what the movies can do and not be attached to what any of those responses become.

What is it like to put a film that is this personal into the world? Obviously people have reacted really well to it.

Yeah that’s nice (laughs). I was so trepidatious of putting Cameraperson into the world. I was so concerned that no one would be able to understand or relate. Then, of course, that turned out to be not true. That was a revelation to me. It was filled with questions and people embraced it in a way that was thrilling for me. They saw things in the film that I couldn’t see.

I think we when are afraid of putting personal things in a film, we’re afraid of being revealed. We’re afraid of our own shame. We’re afraid we won’t be good enough for something or someone. Cameraperson was me putting all of my worries, fears and ethical dilemmas in a film. This film [Dick Johnson is Dead] in many ways was me putting in my defiance of death in a film. That’s absurd. I’m impotent. Like, what an absurdist thing to attempt to do. So in some ways, it’s embarrassing. To make a film about one’s own father simply because one loves him so much; how crazy is that? How hubristic is that? There’s all kinds of things that one could think about it, that are just humiliating to me in a certain way (laughs). But what I learnt from Cameraperson is once one shares those kind of things, there’s great acceptance and empathy from other people because it’s what we’re all trying to not reveal about ourselves. How afraid we are of so much of what’s inside of us.

This interview has been edited and condensed.