Zara Meerza’s short film refashions the celebrity documentary, using personal recollection to make sense of collective obsession

“From childhood, Mary-Kate and Ashley have indelibly woven their way into culture,” reads the opening frame of Zara Meerza’s The Twins. “This film is about one woman’s teenage obsession with the world they created.”

Quick cut to a montage, set to Play’s “Us Against the World”: Here are the Olsens as toddlers, appearing on Entertainment Tonight; dressed up as detectives, or jockeys, or rockstars strumming identical electric guitars; sliding on dark sunglasses, poolside, in near-perfect unison. Meerza’s voice takes over: “I grew up in a crowded house, with three generations of family under one roof. Being a first-generation Indian-British girl in ’90s North London, no one in my life had grown up in the West. So every experience was a mystery—a sort of overwhelming adventure that I wandered into first… On the eve of tween transition, I found two blonde sisters who would unpredictably change this feeling. I found Mary-Kate and Ashley.”

Produced by WePresent—the digital arts platform of WeTransfer—the 13-minute film covers a range of topics; the twins are the anchor, certainly, but they’re never quite the subject. It’s a visual essay—primarily composed of clips of archival Olsen performances, and Meerza’s own narration—about pop culture, collective obsession, and society’s fascination with twinship itself. Mostly, it’s about the director’s lifelong infatuation with Mary-Kate and Ashley—both despite and because of their differences. Is it just that they’re visually compelling? she wonders. That it’s impossible to pit one against the other? Maybe that their journey toward individuality coincided with Meerza’s own? “I was trying to be true to my history, and explore my future, she recalls. “Just as they were in these teenage films.”

The Twins falls right in the center of the golden age of celebrity documentary; the genre itself seems to split into two camps. First, the films that stars make themselves, or play a large role in, often in attempt to reclaim their own narrative: Kanye West’s jeen-yus trilogy, Paris Hilton’s This is Paris, Michelle Obama’s Becoming. Then, there’s the outsider deep dive, sometimes created posthumously, or after the celebrity has exited or been forced out of the pblic eye. Nowadays, these can take the form of dramatized miniseries, like American Playboy, or true-crime style sagas, such as Allen v. Farrow. Traditionally, it’s stuff like Amy, Framing Britney Spears, The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe—features packed with insider commentary, expert opinions, all in the name of breaking down the intrigue of some person of intense interest.

“There’s something so alluring in breaking down the celebrity psyche—in speculating on their motivations, peering at their private lives, and learning their secrets.”

The Olsen twins are a perfect target for this sort of thing: pop culture icons who’ve gone off the grid, save for The Row and a tight inner circle. Women who hacked fame. They were born into it, practically, creating an empire of things in their likeness (“movies, TV shows, cruises, video games, books, dolls, makeup, clothes, magazines,” Meerza lists off) before reaching adolescence, changing their looks, and promptly disappearing into intensely private life.

I’ll be the first to admit, a deep dive was what I wanted, and expected, pre-screening. There’s something so alluring in breaking down the celebrity psyche—in speculating on their motivations, peering at their private lives, and learning their secrets. It’s certainly a route to high viewership, and offers the added value of word-of-mouth marketing. And though it’s not all bad—as was the case with Framing Britney Spears, for example, which brought global attention to the issue of conservatorship abuse—it tends to sensationalize suffering and simplify real life in the name of narrativization. Pam & Tommy, a Hulu series about Pamela Anderson’s leaked sex tape, was produced without her consent, and sympathized heavily with the man who violated her privacy in the first place. It’s just one example of the consequential factors at play.

But can celebrity documentary survive without exploitation? I had the chance to ask Meerza about her approach, which feels like the outsider’s alternative to the deep dive. She cites a few of her influences: Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, a 2003 documentary exploring the reality of LA against its many representations on-screen; Elizabeth Sankey’s Romantic Comedy (2019), which takes a critical look at the tropes of the genre, and its effects on how we as a society view love; and the work of Kevin B. Lee, best-known for his 2014 short film Transformers: The Premake, which compiles hundreds of YouTube videos in an exploration of high-budget filmmaking and the political economy of images. Lee calls his style “desktop documentary”—the computer acts as “both camera and lens… [presenting] the world as it is experienced through networked interfaces.”

“I wanted to build a bridge between what is often seen as a more academic form of documentary filmmaking and pop culture, without asking more of the subjects at the heart of the film.”

“I love living in archive,” Meerza explains. “Work that plays in that space really informed the visual language of the film.” The Twins is a sort of video collage, inspired equal parts by adolescent scrapbooking and a Contructivism exhibition she saw at MoMA. “The idea of relying on the textures of near history, psychology, and personal recollection to create a space to tell the story of a generation’s relationship to the Olsens was a reaction against the often sterile, [celebrity-produced] bio-doc, and a desire to produce a more intimate space for questioning.”

Meerza figures the Olsens might have seen her film, since its release in 2018. But she never asked, and certainly doesn’t plan to. She’s working now on a feature-length version. “I want to establish that subjects of pop culture are not simply for throwaway analysis,” she says of the project. “Maintaining this delicate dance is a real priority.”

Fame is a tradeoff, at the end of the day. Usually, it’s a decision that the celebrity makes—that isn’t the case, of course, with the Olsen twins, who debuted as infants on the sitcom Full House. It seems fair that they escape the tabloids now, existing as concepts more than figures in the glare of publicity, photographed on their smoke breaks and nowhere else. “I wanted to build a bridge between what is often seen as a more academic form of documentary filmmaking and pop culture, without asking more of the subjects at the heart of the film, who I see as having given so much to the public already,” the director says. If anyone has earned the right to be portrayed in Meerza’s style, it might as well be Mary-Kate and Ashley.