By Gregory Crofton
In 2008, after years of enduring the darkest miseries of mental illness, a photographer and artist committed suicide in her Manhattan loft. She left behind 15 notes to various loved ones, and plenty of food for her cats in case people didn’t find her body that quickly.
Ruth Litoff was an unusual and an intense person.
There are other documentaries that have looked at suicide and its aftermath, “THE WOODMANS” (2010), about the artist Francesa Woodman, is the first film to come to mind.
But “32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide” sets itself apart because it shows its director, Hope Litoff, fall back into alcoholism while sorting through her sister’s art, journals and other personal possessions six years after the suicide.
Her first drink in 16 years is a double vodka on the rocks with two olives. A film editor by trade, she shoots the momentous event with her phone. Never has a drink looked so good. But of course it probably tasted awful, and the decision to return to drinking alcohol certainly becomes a bad one for her.
Hope Litoff, the director and star of the film, ironically, is what makes “32 Pills” a compelling film. She is a beautiful woman who serves herself up as a charismatic main character, one you care about and are invested in. It’s easy to imagine that her sister Ruth, when she was alive, was similarly magnetic.
But outside loads of her photographs, diary entries and drawings — which are many and quite wonderful — what’s missing from the documentary is Ruth speaking on camera or audio tape. In a recent Salon article, Hope revealed that she had filmed her sister for short documentary she made in college, but decided to trash the footage because she wasn’t happy with how the project turned out.
Fortunately there are a few seconds of Ruth on speaking on camera — about how much she cares about her sister — included at the very end of the film. A nice finishing touch to close out a powerful and interesting documentary, now airing on HBO, about the impact of mental illness.