A documentary maker who repeatedly staged her father’s death to help her deal with his descent into dementia has said the film is “an act of defiance”.
Kirsten Johnson’s Netflix documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead fakes her father’s death in a number of creative and often funny ways, and even shows him in heaven.
The film, which won a special award for innovation in non-fiction storytelling at the Sundance film festival, also shows the director’s tender relationship with her father.
She told the PA news agency: “You can’t actually accept it, you can’t accept that this person who loves you doesn’t recognise you.
“This film is an act of defiance in response to that and also a desperate begging of cinema to help me put him back together, to put the pieces back together.”
She added: “We know each other in so many different ways and cinema allows us to see all of those different ways, ways that we are even unconscious of.
“Just the fact that my dad and I are together making the film, I have not lost him. He knows me, I know him.”
Discussing how making the film helped her process her grief, she said: “No question, because it meant not succumbing to fear, denial, complete disconnect.
“It meant not marginalising him, it meant bringing him to the centre of things and using our capacities for improvisation that cinema gives us to try and be together.
“How can we build something together? How can we make something funny together?”
Johnson’s father turned 86 during the making of the film, and since then his condition has deteriorated – but Johnson said she was conscious that she will always have this film, long after he is gone.
She said: “It doesn’t give me everything but it gives me something different than memory and memory as we learn, it shifts, it fades, it reappears, it re-manifests, and it’s very unreliable, and at least I know that this image will be there for me.
“Even filming our home which was the only home I knew, that allowed me to be ok with giving it up.
“You know it’s an illusion but if there is something that you really treasure that you must lose, to have an image of it is at least something and I think our perceptual capacities to see and to hear are different than our capacity to imagine so that is where I rely upon cinema and know that the evidence of cinema is meaningful to me.”
She continued: “I’m not afraid of anything my father becomes because he is still holding the essence of him, so that lack of fear allows me to go into the stuff that is so scary, into the grief, into the loss, into the dementia.
“But also cinema is helping me do that, it’s giving me compartments, days of shooting, ways of imagining, it’s helping me engage with the scariest parts of it.”
Johnson said it is “blowing his mind” that her father will now be a Netflix star, and she said: “We were talking about my wish to take him to so many different countries and the fact that Netflix global reach means that he is going all over the world to hundreds of countries is kind of amazing.”
Dick Johnson Is Dead is streaming on Netflix now.