Hot Docs 2017 Profile: Hope Litoff
“I have always wondered about what it would take for me to step away from editing and into the director’s seat. I was waiting for a story I had to tell — that I felt compelled to tell. This is the one.”
In December of 2008, police found artist Ruth Litoff in her Manhattan loft surrounded by fifteen suicide notes and gifts for all her friends. A police officer at the scene noted, “I have never seen anything like this.” Six years later, Hope Litoff thinks she may be ready to tackle what is left of her sisters belongings. This is where 32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide begins.
Director — and sister of the deceased — Hope Litoff starts her journey by unlocking Ruth’s storage locker, hoping that what lies within will help her to understand her sister in a way that she was never able to when she was alive. Between scenes of Hope sifting through Ruth’s belongings, we watch as the screen fills with photos and animations of Hope’s art and personal journal entries, interviews with Ruth’s closest friends, old home movies, and Hope’s own video diaries.
Through her search for answers, Hope ends up risking her relationships with friends and family, as well as her sixteen years of sobriety. You will see wistful reminiscing, familial strain, self-doubt, addiction… even the inside of a rehab room — Hope leaves nothing out of the picture.
32 Pills is a film so moving and so beautiful that it goes beyond documenting the life and death of artist Ruth Litoff and becomes a piece of art itself. Not only do we get to see a uniquely arranged and thorough vision of who Ruth Litoff was as a sister, an artist, and a human struggling with mental illness, but we also get to see Hope’s raw and honest journey as she struggles to come to terms with her sister’s suicide.
32 Pills will have its World Premiere at the 2017 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival and will be broadcast on HBO sometime in late 2017 or 2018.
You can see 32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide at this year’s Hot Docs, screening at 9:30pm on May 1st, 1:45pm on May 2nd, and 3:30pm on May 5th and May 7th. GET YOUR TICKETS HERE.
TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOURSELF AND HOW YOU GOT INVOLVED WITH FILMMAKING.
Hope Litoff: I have been involved in documentary film editing in all different capacities for the last 20 years. I remember the first time I saw Grey Gardens by the Maysles Brothers as a teenager. This was the first time I had seen any kind of Direct Cinema with real people living their real lives (as opposed to lions eating antelopes). I was inspired and wanted to be a part of this kind of documentary world. It is not lost on me NOW that a dysfunctional female relationship was something I was immediately drawn to, although at the time I thought I was just taken with the realness of these characters on film. I studied film in college and was lucky enough to have several great film editing mentors such as Toby Shimin, who I was honored to have edit 32 Pills.
TELL US A BIT ABOUT 32 PILLS. WHY DID YOU CHOOSE FILM AS YOUR MEDIUM FOR TELLING THIS STORY?
HL: My sister Ruth was an amazing artist and I felt her story could not be told without seeing her gorgeous photographs, as well as her more personal drawings and words. Everything she did seemed to be a work of art, right down to the final orchestrated scene of her suicide. She always wanted to be a star, and I wanted to make her one. I shied from the spotlight, feeling safe in my dark edit room piecing other people’s stories together, but I finally felt ready to direct my own film and tell the story of my sister and her suicide.
THERE IS AN OBVIOUS PARALLEL BETWEEN THE PERSONAL RAWNESS YOU DISPLAY IN THIS FILM AND THE RAWNESS OF YOUR SISTER’S ART. IS THIS SOMETHING YOU HAD INTENDED FROM THE BEGINNING, OR DID THE IDEA COME LATER IN THE FILMMAKING PROCESS?
HL: The look of the film was always in the forefront of my mind. I wanted the film itself to be a work of art. My cinematographer, Dan Gold, worked very closely with me to make this happen. I also had the personal mantra to be as truthful as I could be even if it meant being raw. I wanted to let the story unfold as it happened, no matter how ugly it got. I feel that when we can share our secrets, we can be free. I had no idea just how raw things would get though!
DID YOU HAVE AN INTEREST IN BECOMING A DIRECTOR, DOCUMENTARY OR OTHERWISE, PRIOR TO MAKING THIS FILM? OR WAS THIS PROJECT SIMPLY TOO PERSONAL TO HAVE YOU IN ANY OTHER ROLE?
HL: I have always wondered about what it would take for me to step away from editing and into the director’s seat. I was waiting for a story I had to tell — that I felt compelled to tell. This is the one.
HAVING EXPERIENCED EVERYTHING THAT YOU DID DURING THE MAKING OF THIS FILM, WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE YOURSELF IF YOU COULD GO BACK IN TIME TO THE BEGINNING OF THE PROJECT?
HL: Don’t do it! Although I don’t think I had a choice. I put my family, friends, loved ones, and co-workers through hell and that is hard to live with.
NOW THAT IT IS COMPLETE, DO YOU FEEL THAT THE MAKING OF 32 PILLS ACCOMPLISHED WHAT YOU HOPED IT WOULD FOR YOU ON A PERSONAL LEVEL?
HL: The jury is still out for me. I am relieved that I have read every journal, looked at every clue, and that there are no more skeletons in my sister’s storage closet. I can’t say it has been a full feeling of catharsis. I worry about my children seeing the film one day. It is still painful to look at the past and think about losing my sister. I hope that 32 Pills will help others, which remains to be seen. That would give me great personal satisfaction and was always a primary goal in making the film. Premiering at Hot Docs and sharing 32 pills with the world for the first time is still part of my journey.
YOUR FILM’S WORKING TITLE WAS RULES TO LIVE BY. WHAT INSPIRED THE NAME CHANGE TO 32 PILLS: MY SISTER’S SUICIDE?
HL: As I pieced through the many items my sister held dear I couldn’t help but be stuck by all of the pill bottles she saved. Furthermore, she kept meticulous notes on how many pills she would take in an evening or in preparation for a suicide attempt. I too became obsessed with her pills and their meaning. I found a note that she had written: “32 pills, will that be enough?” This resonated with me because nothing was enough. Ultimately, there is no way to know how many pills she took when she died, but the question itself is at once both heartbreaking and as sterile and meaningless as the empty bottles I found.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT SOME/ALL OF THE OTHER AMAZING WOMEN WHO WORKED ON THIS FILM?
HL: I am so lucky to have worked closely with Emmy Award-winning producer Beth Levison (The Trials Of Spring, Lemon) and the extraordinarily talented Sundance Film Festival-winning editor Toby Shimin (How To Dance In Ohio, Buck).
We were more than a team — we were a family. In fact, when the film became particularly difficult, and I was clearly falling apart, we had “family therapy” sessions with an actual psychologist. This enabled us to communicate and feel safe as the film went into the murky waters of my grief and addiction. I can’t imagine a more supportive team. They captained the ship when I had to get help. They went above and beyond any typical crew.
WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE WOMEN WORKING IN THE FILM INDUSTRY?
HL: Penelope Pheeris (dir. of Decline of Western Civilization Part I, II, and III), Kristen Johnston (dir. and cinematographer of Cameraperson).
WHAT’S THE BEST ADVICE ABOUT FILMMAKING YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED?
HL: You don’t ask, you don’t get it. (Even if it is hard as a woman!)
YOU WERE JUST GIVEN A YACHT. WHAT WOULD YOU NAME IT?
HL: Hope Floats.
RECOMMEND ONE #MUFFAPPROVED FILM FOR OUR BLOG READERS:
HL: Streetwise (1984) written by Cheryl McCall and based on her 1983 Life Magazine article.
Lisa Gallagher is the Producer of The MUFF Society in Toronto and a member of the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema venue staff during the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival. She is a lover of cats, carbs, and laying down.