A few days before December 12, 2008, my sister Ruth Litoff decorated her Manhattan loft like a beautiful stage set with fifteen suicide notes surrounding her and specially selected gifts for her closest friends. Multiple bowls of cat food were left in case it took us awhile to find her and every one of her hundreds of markers was in rainbow order. The police officer whispered, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
The film begins on that day I found Ruth dead and traces over her fascinating life and work—punctuated by incredible highs and lows and secrets and lies. It follows my journey as I examine her rich body of artwork, interview friends and family, and read her journals for the very first time. She excelled at everything she did. She was my hero. Why would she want to die?
Like a detective, I’m trying to piece it all together. But making the film has forced me to face difficult truths and caused me to drink again after 16 years of sobriety. The film raises so many questions. Must I admit that my sister and I are not so different? Will the process set me free or destroy me?
Because this film is about my sister - a complex, sometimes dark, and brilliant artist — it was important to me that the film reflect those qualities. During its making, I was deeply committed to the form of the film reflecting its function —to the film itself being a work of art.
Ruth’s story unfolds through interviews with friends and individuals who came to know her in life and through her death. It also unfolds through my own impressions and her art. Ruth was incredibly dynamic and her creative mind —whether responding to or resulting from her mental illness — was never still. She was sexual, never without a boyfriend, and took nude photos of every one she ever had. She was desperate to understand who she was, and took hundreds of self-portraits that alternated between pride and self-loathing. Photography was her main medium but she also created collages, drawings, wry cartoons and videos; even her many suicide attempts were artfully documented. These are all intensely revealing, vividly capture her inner world, and lended themselves to animation, which we employed as a storytelling device throughout the film.
My parallel and personal story is revealed through interviews with family and friends, the unpacking of Ruth’s storage space, and the video journals I continued to create as I revisited the past, succumbed to drinking again after 16 years of sobriety, and went to rehab. This film is my effort to know and accept Ruth in death in a way that I was never able to in life … and to learn to live with the pain of losing her.
The film is complete, will premiere at the 2017 Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival, and will be broadcast on HBO in late 2017 or 2018. More info to come!