Film Reviews

Review: ‘Witkin & Witkin’

Hot Docs 2018


Witkin & Witkin
(Mexico, 93 min.)
Dir. Trisha Ziff
Program: Made in Mexico (International Premiere)

Being a twin can sometimes feel like being in a circus sideshow. People gawk. They stare. They ask questions nobody would ever ask a “single.”

As a twin, I can relate to the stories presented in Witkin & Witkin about twin artists Jerome, a painter, and Joel-Peter, a photographer. For example, my twin brother and I both work in film. He’s a publicist and I’m a writer. It works well, except when his movies stink (though that never happens!), but someone always makes a joke when I review one of his company’s films favourably, or imposter syndrome sets in if I score an interview with a talent far above my pay grade.

This rolling sense of inadequacy has roots in the ways people discuss and view twinhood: it’s a novelty or oddity. Just take one example where, back when I worked at Second Cup during high school, a complete stranger asked to see my teeth because my twin, who worked down the street at Zellers, had just been her cashier. (How messed up is that?) Being a twin can rewire your brain in ways that singles never consider. At restaurants, I refuse to order the same food as my twin and have a back-up plan with the menu just to avoid giving the server an entry for an awkward joke. My twin knows this quirk and always makes sure to order first. (Although we agree that twin orders of duck are the permissible exception.) Being a twin is means being in competition with your best friend. It’s great, but it’s also weird because people in general lack filters and can be insensitive jerks.

Witkin & Witkin runs with the element of twinning that is downright carnivalesque. The circus atmosphere feels appropriate given the nature of the work that makes the Witkin brothers famous. Jerome’s paintings are dark and mysterious and Joel’s photographs dabble in the macabre while exploring the imperfections of the body. Their art reflects the experiences of people who have constantly been objects of uncomfortable gazes and comparisons. They find splendour in divergences from traditional forms of beauty, particularly Joel, who spent much of his childhood in Jerome’s shadow, the latter having established himself as an artist and prodigy quite young. A twin is always aware of his or her imperfections, but feeling like the carbon copy of the pair arguably pushed Joel to challenge himself more profoundly as an artist.

As the film brings the brothers together for a joint art show in Mexico City, their stories bridge the gap left by years of estrangement. Both sides agree that Jerome’s early success as an artist cut the first wedge between them, but their respective triumphs have done much to mute any sibling rivalry.

The film intimately links their identities as twins to their evolution as artists, but it doesn’t define them by their shared genes. Backstories explain their personal growth, such as Joel’s difficult tales of being a war photographer or Jerome’s reasons for creating a devastating portrait of his wife, Lisa, which conveys their grief over the loss of their son. The study of the brothers’ evolution offers a fascinating entry into the nature/nurture debate, for there are commonalities to the ways in which the Witkins express diverse experiences and differences.

Director Trisha Ziff thankfully has a lot more tact than the lady at Second Cup did and treats the brothers as equals. More importantly, she treats them as individuals, as humans. The doc encourages audiences to look at the brothers Witkin with observant interest and curiosity. Here’s a case where it’s fine to stare at twins.

Ziff doesn’t try anything cute, though. She contrasts their stories by highlighting similarities and differences that reveal commonalities and divergences between the brothers as men and artists. As a portrait of artists, Witkin & Witkin is an enlightening character study, but as a snapshot of the strange experience of being a twin, it’s remarkably true to life.

Witkin & Witkin screens:
-Tues, May 1 at 6:15 PM at Scotiabank
-Thurs, May 3 at Isabel Bader
-Sat, May 5 at 10:30 AM at TIFF Lightbox

Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!