When Documentaries Heal: Dick Johnson is Dead and Circus of Books

Orignially appeared in Crooked Marque

Midway through Dick Johnson is Dead, Richard “Dick” Johnson asks his daughter Kristen why she aspired to become a documentarian in lieu of fiction films, which are generally associated with higher fame and financial substance. Kristen responds by saying real life is relatively more entrancing than what someone can fabricate in fiction. She’s right. In fiction films, the characters and circumstances are created to instigate a specific emotion; they are not pre-existing. Conversely, in documentaries, the vehemence of reality is longing to be captured. Documentary filmmaking is more about seizing the existing emotion and ensuring its immaculate transference to the viewer than the replication of moments. That’s precisely what two of the most humanistic and intimate documentaries of the year, Dick Johnson is Dead by Kristen Johnson and Circus of Books by Rachel Mason, gloriously effectuate. 

Dick Johnson is a lovable father and cuddly human. However, he might not be the same anymore; dementia is consuming him piecemeal. Memories, perhaps, deserve more appraisal, since they are the facets distinguishing the otherwise structurally homogeneous human bodies. Kristen arbitrates to face up to her father’s imminent death by preserving his memory in the form of a movie, recreating the possible ways the endearing person meets his end, and she goes on to ‘enact’ fatal accidents, ranging from tripping over the stairs to a bloody puncture in the neck.  All the deaths are designed to be violent and macabre in an everyday sense; something that can be the cause of his death in the very near future. Kristen’s love for her father doesn’t let her stop with death – she organizes a funeral in the presence of friends, family, and Dick himself. As Dick walks through the aisle greeting people who are in attendance to pay their last respects, it is the most stimulating moment of the film, since we know this event will recur in due course, but Dick won’t be present then. 

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