hope litoff x lola karimova

interviewed by gabriella achadinha

‘There is something unique about losing someone to suicide, it’s not really something you’re ever going to get over. It’s a daily battle.
It’s like you always have a splinter in your hand, sometimes you notice it and sometimes you don’t but the splinter is always there.’
Hope Litoff

I can’t recall the day of my fathers’ funeral in the slightest. Nor can I pinpoint memories from the few years succeeding it, as if spellbound shocked from his sudden departing these significant events of my own were immediately sentenced to hibernation. The trauma was a continuous ride of debilitating grief, overwhelming rage. There’s a persistent bittersweet nudge that he should be here for this moment, he should have seen this or heard that, and his exit stands phantom to all the should-haves that he - by his own hand - deliberately decided to skip out on. This nudge has softened over time, an anger is no longer as tangible and is replaced by an understanding. This world is not for all of us. He visits in dreams, appears in songs and in wind-kissed low-cloud rumblings over seascapes.

There’s a specific community created by the sharing of loss via film, you are invited to another’s excavation into sadness, a vulnerability that transcends fear presides and through this bravery of openness, you are seen. Witnessing this within Hope Litoff’s ‘32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide’ and Lola Karimova’s ‘some things last a long time’ is akin to this type of cathartic release. Hope undertakes the momentous task of processing her sisters’ archive of kept objects and photographic works, several years after her sisters’ suicide, whilst piecing together and reframing the reality of a situation that often feels otherworldly. Lola puts stream of consciousness to the family tape as a means of negotiating her mothers’ suicide. studio saudari feels honoured to have interviewed Lola and Hope, and we invite you to delve into their work and thoughts.

32 Pills:
My Sister’s Suicide

hope litoff

Having worked in the film industry for many years as an editor, did you find dealing with your sisters' belongings - consequently her death - easier within this space of creating a film?

It’s funny that you ask this because when I first thought of making 32 Pills I definitely thought my experience as a film editor would shield me like a body armor from the emotions of looking at Ruth’s things. I was really focused on Ruth’s storage space and was very frightened of the mysteries that lay within. When she died my mantra when it came to her belongings (she was like a very well organised and artistic hoarder) was : “be like a robot and just get it in storage.” I couldn’t part with anything from her beautiful art to her old coffee maker or gym socks. Six years later, I felt more prepared to look and give away things to her friends or the needy and honestly, some items belonged in the trash. Another part of the fantasy was I knew I had edited films about different difficult subjects; World War II, The Armenian Genocide, more personal films where the main protagonist dies, and I was able to use the editing screens as a barrier to the emotions of some of the shocking images these films presented. I thought seeing Ruth’s belongings on the screen I would have that same “professional” distance. I was totally wrong.

None of my skills or tricks of emotional distancing held true when it came to our story. I was completely unraveled. One of the magic tricks of a being a film editor is to be able to look at the same footage over and over and keep a fresh eye and watching the film over and over during the editing process was excruciating. I had a wonderful editor, Toby Shimin, my mentor and a much more talented editor than I am edit the film and she is amazing.

The one positive of having worked in film for so many years was that I was able to assemble a team of people I knew and trusted and worked with for many years. They were more than a crew, they were true collaborators and family. I never could have embarked on this type of project with strangers, and I wish I included that somehow in the film.

What spurred you on to make the documentary, a few years after Ruth's death?

As a film editor many times I was asked the question, “Why don’t you direct your own film?”
I knew from working closely with many directors how passionate you had to be to direct. I was able to come in, do my job, and turn the computer off at the end of the day. The director must do so much work before, during and after the editing of a project and I did not have that kind of passion for any particular topic. I would jokingly compare myself to a plumber. I could come in with my specialised skills, do the work putting together the sink, and leave, unlike the director who had to live in the house all the time.

I always thought if I had one topic I cared enough about it would have to be my sister, Ruth. The thought of directing her film always simmered in my mind but it wasn’t until a dear friend who worked with Sheila Nevins, the then queen of all documentaries and the head of documentaries at HBO, invited me to a screening of a film and Sheila was there and I had the lucky chance to be introduced to her.

32 Pills initially starts off as an examination of your sisters' struggle with mental health but consequently delves into your own struggles, without giving away too much for those yet to watch the documentary - do you feel that the filmmaking process ultimately provided a catharsis?

It was an incredibly difficult process... much harder than I could have imagined. I had not properly grieved anyone in my family’s deaths. It is skimmed over in the film, but I had lost both my parents and Ruth in about a 4-year span. I never properly processed any of them. Every task making the film was so loaded, my producer might say, “Why don’t you look through these photo albums or boxes of pictures and pick out your favourites?” Normally this would be so easy, but I literally felt beat up emotionally with every project like this. I read every page of my sister’s journals, I read every emails and all of her datebooks. One happy surprise was I assumed her journals would be filled with page after page of how much she hated me. She had a way of making the person standing in front of her feel totally responsible for her well-being so I was relieved that my name was not on every page. Going through Ruth’s things with not just sad but it filled me with more questions, an anger I was never allowed to feel because she was sick and I was not.

I wanted to be as honest as I could be, I felt it was my duty to the other people who maybe had family members like Ruth. Growing up with someone with her kind of mental illness is so confusing, one minute you are the most important person to her (too important) and with a change in the wind she could be so cruel, brilliantly manipulative, and at times terrifyingly quiet and depressed. I felt a level of guilt because I could not be completely honest with “my people” because it’s still a film and I didn’t want her cruelty to make the audience turn away from her, it’s a tricky balance because I wanted to show her pain and brilliance so I felt I couldn’t go too far. I did a lot of screenings of rough cuts with fellow film people (mostly editors) and they were very honest and would say, “If you include that story I can’t care about Ruth’s character anymore.” Their feedback was invaluable, but I felt like I was secretly letting some people down who might feel alone with their own conflicted feelings of love and hate for their mentally ill person.

I guess I am leading up to the answer that, no, it was not cathartic at the time. As is alluded to in the question, I started to crack on film. I became self-destructive. My closest friends told me to stop making the film, but I did not feel like I could stop. Not only the business side of things, I had accepted money from HBO, many grants, had hired people, but also I was obsessed and I hoped getting to the other sided would help me personally as well as achieve all the lofty plans of destigmatizing mental illness, and more importantly letting people like me know they are not alone. I would never call myself an “artist” but I do express myself artistically and this was my way of dealing with my grief.

The people who told me to stop making the film were doing it out of love, but I think I would have fallen apart with or without the film. Some people grew to resent me and the film as if it was all the film’s fault and my pride that wouldn’t let me stop. That was particularly devastating. When I needed my best friends the most, they were not able to be there for me. It’s hard to be around someone like me and that part I understand but I think they were wrong to blame the making of the film. I didn’t want to be around me either. It felt lonely trying to climb the mountain and perceive some loved ones conveying a feeling of, “you are an idiot for climbing the mountain and it’s your fault if you stumble.” I might be totally wrong about that but I guess it’s proof all these years later I am still trying to figure this whole thing out.

My life, not the film.

It felt great sharing the film with live audiences, hugging strangers who understand, if there was any catharsis it came from those moments of sharing our pain.

You make a profound statement about belonging to both the parent-death and the suicide club.
A friend and I have discussed this extensively as we both belong to both those clubs, and miss belonging to the ignorance is bliss club.

Did you have any coping processes or rituals in dealing with the losses?
Also, for the reverse, for those who have yet to experience either of these losses - any advice on how to show up?

I wish I had better rituals to help me cope with the loses. With so many people gone there are so many anniversaries meaning, the days they died and their birthdays. For me, that is six a year and they can really creep up on me.
I can be feeling oddly sad and wondering why and then the significance of the day will hit me. I’ve tried different things, lighting candles, making special flower arrangements, but my favorite was when my daughter and I (she was maybe around six or seven years old at the time) dressed up in my mother’s old clothes, put on a ton of make-up (my mother, Carole, loved glamour) and did a fashion shoot.

This year my daughter and I made hand made birthday cards for Ruth with magic markers and she asked me all about Ruth’s favourite things and we just chatted about her.

I think the kindest way to show up for a friend is to offer to be there and mean it. Almost no one remembers anymore but a few do and simply saying, I’m thinking about you today” in a text is all it takes. I also forgive people who haven’t been through it. They cannot imagine what it is like to feel like an orphan and probably never will have to feel that way (assuming they don’t lose a sibling) and that is not their fault. On days like funerals and sitting shiva I try to be the last one to leave. I remember apologizing to my friend, George, the one in the film for not being a better friend about his mother who had died when he was a kid. Although we didn’t meet until our 20s I just didn’t get it. I said, “I had no idea what it’s like, I’m sorry I didn’t get it.”

There's a thread of the sister dynamic which continuously peaks through.
As your sister was demanding of attention and time due to her mental health, and you had to take a step back to allow that, how was it navigating the world with that dynamic gone?

You are very perceptive! No, that is not gone, perhaps it’s worse now.
I am a perfect target for a narcissist. I find it impossible to say, “No” to people more than once. I do generally find myself walking on eggshells around people and am a people pleaser. I think when I was going through my hard time during and after the film, I was a selfish rebel for the first time and that really bothered people (obviously but it being ME made it worse). I was so used to letting people treat me like shit that I was surprised by how quickly normal people get angry when I was a jerk.
I thought to myself that they knew I was dancing around trying to please them all the past years and that they appreciated it. It was a weird idea that was totally made up by me and a consequence of having Ruth as an older sister. She always wanted to be famous.
Not me. I was happy working in a dark edit room by myself.
I never wanted to be such a big part of the film. I have recurring nightmares of re-editing it so I appear less. Ultimately it became a film about sisters and I am happy about that but the goal was really to shine the light on Ruth and Ruth alone.

I look for different things in my friends now, empathy is very important to me and I have found that some of my closest friends aren’t as kind as I thought. Maybe that is the gift or the catharsis of the film. Making my old relationships that are worth it stronger and leaving the ones that really were one sided behind.

Ruth's work is outstanding.
Traversing style and subject matter, there's a consistent eye for capturing mood and the underlying. Where can one view her works?
Are there any books or publications available?

No unfortunately.
I think I would be risking my mental health trying to put together a website or book. I wish I were stronger.

Your fulfillment of Ruth's exhibition at Bellevue Hospital was particularly moving, even being able to witness the works realized in the space, through a screen, brought on tears!
Did you find a renewed sense of creative energy through that process?
As much as it's Ruth's works, it's also your direction and management.

It was amazing making Ruth’s Dream come true and it was especially gratifying how many people at DuArt (the film lab that she initially tried to do the project) remembered my sister and even remember working on the original plans with her.
Times and technology had changed so much that it was finally feasible to create such large-scale light up photographs and with the emotional and financial support from DuArt plus many meetings with the wonderful people at Bellevue we were able to make it all happen.

What you don’t get to see in the film is that months later Bellevue accepted the show as a permanent installation and her work will live on there hopefully, forever. So, if anyone wants to visit it, they can still go to the South Lobby of Bellevue Hospital in NYC. I personally haven’t been able to go back. I think I am worried it will look dusty or not taken care of and I would rather imagine it just being pristine and appreciated.

Speaking of which, as this creative mastery clearly runs in the genes, what are your next projects?

I’m still healing from the project and don’t think I will ever feel passionately enough about another topic to want to direct again. I really got swept away and still have a lot of fear about going back to directing.

Right now, I am pre-screening films for POV a documentary series presented by PBS.
I love the work. Nothing better than watching documentaries and then giving my opinion!

some things
last a long time

lola karimova

'some things last a long time' is really an invitation into an intimate familial setting. The camcorder footage, the small moments of the daily and the grand snippets of the festive, the viewer truly feels like a fly on the wall. What was it like sifting through this footage? What drove you to create a documentary from it?

I was 16 when I discovered this footage by accident, I had asked my father if he had any old cameras I could use to fiddle around with and just shoot my friends smoking cigarettes and gallivanting around skate ramps in mini skirts. He gave me this camera with 19 cassette tapes (approximately 21 hrs worth of footage), and I still to this day don’t understand if he knew what was on these tapes or not. I sat down at the kitchen table to go through the tapes and copy them so I could use them, and I was shocked to find basically the life story of my parents starting from the day of their wedding day to 6 months after my mothers suicide.

These tapes consumed me for the next 3 days.

I’d never made anything substantial before, but this just came out so naturally from me, it felt like everything just pieced together so perfectly (for example, one of the closing songs ‘some things last a long time’ by Daniel Johnston has the lyric “the red is strong, the blue is pure” as I’m stomping about in my mothers red slippers and my blue dress, and this was an accidental coincidence).

I had never really processed my mothers death, in fact I had rejected it with every fibre of my being, but suddenly my thoughts and words just came pouring out. It was difficult to see the reality of my familial situation so clearly in front of me, it was beautiful to understand more about a woman I’d never known, it was hard to accept that I in fact hold so many parts of her in me without even trying. I think the main driving factor was that I wanted to help someone. A parent, a young child, a teenager, a grieving family, a lonely baker, an uninspired musician. Basically anyone that knows what its like to feel hopeless. I wanted to make sure people knew it was okay to possess so many complicated and conflicting feelings, or on some days, to just not feel anything at all, and that even if perhaps a conclusion is never found, it will be ok.

Speaking of this pre-production process, to get a bit more technical, do you have a background in film production?

Funny story- not so funny then but pretty funny now- I had originally created a version that was 40 minutes, which took me 7 months to make. This was the version I meant to release on my 17th birthday. The moment I pressed export my entire backup and software crashed, I lost everything. I layed in bed for 3 days sobbing until I decided that if something was going to stop me from making this documentary it wouldn’t be a f*cking computer glitch. So I sat down and redid it, in a shorter and I think better version of 15 minutes. I only released it 2 years later (when I was 19).

I am currently a student so I have been working on student films, and am trying to break into the film industry. I have recently directed a music video with an incredible team for my older sister Jasmine, which I’m so excited for and proud of. I have a lot of projects lined up but I won’t jinx my chances for now!

I am pretty 50/50 in terms of working in film or in music, I am currently in the process of figuring out exactly how and where I fit in there or how I can make myself a place, but I feel very sure that I can provide something important and evolved to both fields of work.

Was 'some things last a long time' created as a means to gain closure? Or did it rather create new questions?

I hoped that perhaps my documentary would provide me with some closure, but in fact it became a doorway into an internal world of my emotions and traumas that I had not touched yet.
Since the making and now the releasing of this short I have grown immensely, and my relationships have too, but I think it created more questions than answers.

I guess my key question is ‘do deep wounds ever really heal?’ and in turn that has also become the ultimate answer.

The video has abrupt cuts, switches from narration to just using subtitles - what was the reasoning for it?

I think if I would re-edit this film I would create consistency in terms of voiceover and subtitles. In terms of the abrupt cuts in musical sound/shots

I think I just didn’t want to milk the sob story too much. The story itself is already fundamentally sad but I wanted to display the different sides of it, though perhaps all of this boils down to the fact that I had no prior experience or education other than watching a lot of films (especially Sofia Coppola, who herself uses a lot of jump cuts as well haha). I do however stand by my choice of abrupt cuts as I think it’s timed neatly, and sort of zaps you into the next subject.

There's a significant reference throughout to the 'rage' / 'the anger' felt by being left alone, without a mother. But there's also, towards the end, a different emotional reference: 'but I also feel sadness for her as a woman, because that's what she was'. It seems like a trajectory of dealing with the inner emotional landscape but then also arriving at the more objective realisation of her struggle, her as an individual. Can you explain this process of raging then grieving?

This says a lot about the duality of a human being. For me personally, I have a soft and understanding streak in me, which represents my need to understand my mother and forgive her on my better days, though that changes constantly as well. The other side of me is filled with so much inherent rage and recklessness. So much sadness and mania. This part of me brutally rejects vulnerability, I get so overwhelmed with the heaviness of these emotions that I shove them away as far as possible.

Making this film was a turning point for me in terms of accepting both sides, and I have gotten so much better at being in tune with myself and where my reactions and behaviour comes from. I’m constantly stuck between the polars of this process but I know they create my truth when put together, as exhausting as it is. If I ever come close to closing this loop I’ll let you know.

On this note, there's a profound statement you make - 'Instead I feel all the sadness I've avoided by staying mad at her' - which all loved ones who've lost someone to suicide can highly relate to. What spurned on this allowing yourself to really feel the sadness? Did creating the film assist in dealing with this, or was it unrelated?

I broke down watching the footage. I have really terrible memory, I may have subconsciously blocked my entire childhood up until the age of 11, but I only found out my mothers cause of death was suicide when I was either 10 or 11. So I think that through creating this film I was able to identify how this trauma made ME specifically feel, separate from any family members or unnecessary comments from people that just don’t know any better. It became my own film, my own pain and my own process, and when something's yours you get to do with it whatever you please. Which is a blessing and a curse when it comes to emotions.