The AFI DOCS Interview: WITKIN + WITKIN Director Trisha Ziff
The artwork of septuagenarian twins Joel-Peter and Jerome Witkin transcends genres and traditional form. WITKIN + WITKIN explores the brothers’ complicated relationship with one another and examines depths and divisions in their work.
Joel-Peter’s stunning and controversial photography and Jerome’s powerful figurative paintings distinctly capture the human condition, reflecting differing emotional and intellectual approaches. With quiet beauty, WITKIN + WITKIN celebrates the vision of two great American artists.
AFI spoke with director Trisha Ziff about the film, which premieres as a Special Screening at this year’s AFI DOCS. She previously brought her film THE MAN WHO SAW TOO MUCH to AFI DOCS 2016.
AFI: What led you to pursue documentary filmmaking?
TZ: I come from a history of documentary photography, working with photographers on magazine stories, and also as a curator working with photography in museums. I produced a major exhibition on the famous image of Che Guevara by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda, which toured internationally, and a friend of mine suggested it was a great theme for a documentary. He took me to Netflix, and I found myself making my first film, THE MAN WHO SAW TOO MUCH. I have never looked back! I loved the marriage of the storytelling, the moving image and the collectivity of film.
AFI: Why inspired you to tell this story?
TZ: This film is a story about identical twins. What fascinated me was how different they are; the contradictions, identical yet different; in their personalities, their way of working, even where they live, one in the snow of Syracuse, the other in the desert of New Mexico. Everything about them is different, and yet their work has profound overlaps and similarities in the roots. The norm is closeness of twins, not the separation. I have immense respect for their work, but also their stories, their lives, the hurdles, the losses, their survival.
AFI: How did you find the Witkins?
TZ: I knew of Joel-Peter Witkin’s work as one of the most important photographers of the 20th century; serendipitously, I discovered his brother’s painting. I was unsure they would offer to make a film with me, but they did! Yet the film has changed nothing in their relationship.
AFI: What was a challenge you faced while making the film?
TZ: My film tells the story of twins, brothers who dont talk to each other. How to make a film which, in essence, is a dialogue when the main characters don’t ever speak with each other, even when in the same location. The editing of the film was crucial and Jorge Marquez did an amazing job. We didn’t create a false dialogue but what he did create was an equality for the audience to make their own version of their communication, or lack of it.
What do you want audiences to walk away with after screening your film?
TZ: Curiosity; interest in knowing more about their work but more than that, thinking about relationships in our lives; family relationships, dysfunction and how we communicate.
Why is Washington, DC, a valuable location to screen your film?
TZ: Both of my characters, Joel-Peter Witkin and Jerome Witkin, have works in the collections of the major museums of DC. So to show the film in the capital, which is also where so much art is recognized, is meaningful. In particular, to show the film at the National Gallery is very important — to them as artists as much as for me as a filmmaker.
AFI: Why are documentary films important today?
TZ: I think documentary films are always important; they tell the stories that normally allow for a more in-depth study than news, for example, allows. We live in a moment where everything of meaning is under attack, and this concept of “fake news,” and the spin of narratives, undermines so much of the information out there. While my films are not news-related, many of my colleagues make films that address the issues of our time more directly. These films act as a counterpoint to misinformation, and allow people to look more closely at content; look beyond the quick fix of sound and image bytes. Documentaries are, by their nature, works that are made with time, in a considered way. They play an enormous role in informing us, on so many different levels. The fact they are under threat with so many budget cuts only says so clearly that their impact matters.