Review: ’32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide’

Hot Docs 2017

3 mins read

32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide
(USA, 85 min.)
Dir. Hope Litoff
Programme: Artscapes (World Premiere)

In 2008, photographer Ruth Litoff took her own life. Her sister, director Hope Litoff, returns to Ruth’s belongings and revisits the death to look for answers in her film 32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide. Despite its intimacy, 32 Pills never manages to move beyond the exploitative and insensitive in its depiction of mental illness and suicide.

In this documentary, we are presented with an incredibly raw portrait of the director. She is blunt and open about her emotions surrounding her sister’s death. They distress her to the point of drinking, despite years of sobriety after addiction. These scenes are shocking and uncomfortable, particularly when those in her life actively enable her relapse.

Hope Litoff hogs the spotlight, to the detriment of Ruth’s memory. With the film taken up by the director’s reactions, her needs, and self-praise, Ruth is necessarily diminished in order to fit into the narrative. Hope Litoff is from the start an abrasive figure in terms of discourse on mental illness. Offensively, she discusses her fears of going “crazy,” an abstract concept brought to us with hurtful terminology. Beyond the way Hope speaks of her sister, is how Ruth is presented herself. She is boiled down to stereotypes of mental illness: the fragile and Ophelia-esque, the super-sensual muse with a sexy wild side, the self-destructive force who can’t be saved from herself. Ruth is less a person than she is a series of outdated tropes used to evoke the director’s emotions, while mental illness is similarly reduced to clichés.

In a film that cannot hear from its subject, there is little discussion of how mental illness kills before it allows those actually impacted to tell their stories. Nor is there a discussion of how Hope Litoff repeating offensive words and ideas only enforces stigma, silencing those who are mentally ill. It is possible to look at the impact of death, particularly suicide, on those who are left behind. 32 Pills, however, is too distanced from sympathy and understanding, too affirmative of the stigma against mental illness, to allow for a moving image of grief. Instead, the film feels alienating, selfish, and ignorant.

32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide screens:
-Friday, May 5 at the Revue at 3:30 PM
-Sunday, May 7 at TIFF Bell Lightbox at 3:30 PM

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