Still from Dick Johnson is Dead

Three Columbia Films Win at the 2020 Critics Choice Documentary Awards

BY Cody Beltis, November 23, 2020

Dick Johnson is Dead, co-produced by Associate Professor and Chair of the Creative Producing Concentration, Maureen A. Ryan was nominated for four Critics Choice Association Documentary Awards, winning Best Documentary Feature. The award for Best Director went to Kirsten Johnson for the film. The subject of the film was also recognized as one of the Most Compelling Living Subjects of a Documentary. After premiering on Netflix in October, the film was selected as a New York Times Critics Pick, and listed as one of the New Yorker's Sixty-Two Films that Shaped the Art of Documentary.


Totally Under Control, co-directed and co-produced by alumna Ophelia Harutyunyan '15, won the Critics Choice Association Documentary Award for Best Editing. It is now available to stream on Hulu. St. Louis Superman, co-directed by alumni Sami Khan '09 and Smriti Mundhra '09, won the Critics Choice Association Documentary Award for Best Short Film. 


From award-winning documentary director Kirsten Johnson, Dick Johnson is Dead is about staging clever ways for her 86-year-old psychiatrist father to die, as he falls ill with dementia, while hoping that the magic of cinema might help her turn back time, laugh at pain and keep her father alive forever. The darkly sardonic and whimsically imaginative story is a clandestine love letter from a daughter to a father, which toggles between fact and fiction to create a festive exploration of how film gives us the artistic tools to cope with life’s obstacles.


Dick Johnson Is Dead was also co-produced by Adjunct Assistant Professor Marilyn Ness, assistant directed by alumnus Michael Toscano ’12, with alumnus John Wakayama Carey ’14 as Director of Photography, and production managed by Adjunct Assistant Professor Sarah Seulki Oh


Several other Columbia alumni and one student worked on the film including Joshua Ryan Troxler ’18, Production Coordinator, Mahak Jiwani ’18, Production Coordinator, Kristy Richman ’19, Production Coordinator/Extras Casting, Markus Kirschner ’09, Production, Federica Gianni ’17, Media Manager, Ewing Luo ’18, Production, Frank Liu ’19, Production Assistant, student Alex Yarber, Production Assistant, Jaclyn Noel ’19, Production Assistant, and Christina Wood ’19, Production Assistant.

Still from Totally Under Control, image courtesy of The Guardian

Totally Under Control is an exposé, made with an apposite muckraker approach, which informs about the inadequate government response to the COVID-19 pandemic by informing viewers of the clear guidelines put in place during past pandemics. “At this moment 190,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. The carelessly designed lockdowns and their long-lasting economic effects have led to massive job losses, widespread hunger, dislocation, and a runaway federal deficit,” according to a press release about the film. 


Harutyunyan is an Armenian filmmaker based out of New York with a combined fiction and documentary background, sharing her time between Armenia and the USA. Her films have played at major film festivals including Sundance, TIFF, Clermont-Ferrand, Raindance, Woodstock, and Austin Film Festival. Red Apples, a short film she wrote and produced, premiered at Toronto International Film Festival and played at a number of other international film festivals, winning the Grand Jury Award for Best Narrative Short at Florida Film Festival, and qualifying for the Oscars, Artist Award at Odense Film Festival, and the Audience Award at Austin Film Festival. Currently, Harutyunyan has produced CrazyNot Insane and associate produced Citizen-K for Oscar winning documentarian Alex Gibney. 

Still from St. Louis Superman

St. Louis Superman tells the tale of Bruce Franks Jr., a Ferguson activist and battle rapper who was elected to the overwhelmingly white and Republican Missouri House of Representatives, who must overcome both personal trauma and political obstacles to pass a critical bill for his community. The documentary first premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival New York in 2019.


Khan is a biracial Muslim filmmaker based in New York City. His work has screened at leading festivals including the Toronto International Film Festival and the Mumbai Film Festival. Khan is producer and co-director on The Last Out, a documentary that tells the harrowing tale of four Cuban baseball players and their dangerous journeys out of their homeland and into the United States. 


Khoya, Khan's feature debut as writer/director, was selected for the Tribeca Film Institute’s All Access fellowship and received financial backing from Spike Lee. The film tells the story of a man traveling to India to solve the decades-old mystery surrounding his adoption. Khan is a previous adjunct lecturer at Columbia University and Brooklyn College. He received his MFA from Columbia University. 


Mundhra is an award-winning filmmaker who has been working in the film and television industry for over fifteen years. Her documentary A Suitable Girl premiered in the documentary competition of the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival to rave reviews and was awarded the Albert Maysles Best Documentary Director prize at the festival. Prior to A Suitable Girl, Mundhra produced Bomb the System, a 2004 Independent Spirit Award nominee for Best First Feature, and the SXSW Audience Award-winning feature film Waterborne


She has written, directed and produced work for BET, Al Jazeera English, and other organizations. Her work has been supported by the Tribeca Film Institute, Film Independent, Women In Film, ITVS, and from the International Documentary Association. Mundhra’s writing has appeared in Filmmaker MagazineLatinaNew York Daily NewsEsquire, and Vogue India. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, screenwriter Christian Magalhães, and their daughter Isabel. Mundhra received her MFA from Columbia University. 


The Critics Choice Documentary Awards are an off-shoot of The Critics Choice Awards, which are bestowed annually by the CCA to honor the finest in cinematic and televised/streaming achievement. Historically, the Critics Choice Awards are the most-accurate predictor of the Academy Award nominations.