BY Frank Scheck
More and more documentaries seem to be made as much for self-therapeutic as informational purposes. Such is certainly the case with Hope Litoff’s deeply personal effort about coping with her sister’s suicide. Rough-hewn stylistically and occasionally bordering on self-indulgence, 32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide nonetheless packs a powerful emotional punch with its unflinching portrait of two siblings dealing with past and present demons. The HBO Documentary Films production recently received its world premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs.
Hope recounts the story of her older sister Ruth, an accomplished photographer who suffered from mental illness and had attempted to kill herself multiple times, starting when she was a teenager, before finally completing the task in December 2008 via an overdose of prescription drugs. The police on the scene told Hope that they had never seen anything like it, with Ruth having meticulously prepared individual notes and gifts for numerous family members and friends. She added a postscript to her note to Hope: “I know you know.” Hope confesses that she has no idea exactly what her sister meant.
Hope, who has a long history of drug and alcohol abuse herself, put her sister’s belongings in storage. Six years later, finally feeling emotionally equipped, she rented a large Brooklyn loft for the purpose of systematically combing through Ruth’s things in an effort to better understand why her sister did what she did. She begins the daunting task with trepidation. “I don’t like to remember things, and I feel like all the memories are in there,” she says, peering into the packed storage locker.
The resulting process becomes obsessive, as Hope devotes herself to her task at the expense of spending time with her husband and two young children. The emotionally draining proceedings also threaten her longtime sobriety. She films herself downing a double shot of vodka, her first drink in 16 years. While the film’s producer looks on in horror, Hope samples several pills from Ruth’s large stash of prescription meds (there were actually hundreds of bottles). She posts hundreds of pages from Ruth’s diaries up on the wall, and even goes to the medical examiner’s office to examine the crime scene photos.
Just as you begin to think that Hope has descended into an irreversible downward spiral, more positive elements emerge. They include her organizing an elaborate installation of Ruth’s photographs in the lobby of Bellevue Hospital, a project begun by Ruth years earlier because she had frequently committed herself there.
The film benefits by including perspectives of people other than Hope, such as several of Ruth’s former friends who attest to her magnetism, beauty and talent. “She could have been a cult leader, she was so charismatic,” one of them declares. There’s also striking video footage of Ruth as a teenager, excerpted from an episode of ABC’s 20/20 in which she was profiled.
32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide is a difficult film to watch, for myriad reasons. But it will certainly resonate deeply with anyone who has struggled with depression or addiction or loved anyone who has. It’s no doubt been cathartic for its first-time filmmaker, and will likely prove the same for many viewers as well.