Director/Screenplay/Producer/Photography/Animation/Papier-Mache – Signe Baumane, Music – Kristian Sensini. Production Company – Signe Bauman Studio
Narration: Signe Bauman)
Animator Signe Bauman tells the story of her heritage. In turn of 20th Century Latvia, her grandmother Anne was secretary to her grandfather Indilus who became enamoured of her and divorced his wife to marry her. Becoming jealous of her youth, he took her away to live in remote seclusion in a cottage in the forest. As the country came under occupation by both the Nazis and Communists, the extreme poverty and hard work she had to endure caused Anne to lose hope and eventually die at a young age. As Anne’s daughters grew up, married and had children, they too succumbed to the family history of madness. So too did Signe who was placed in a Soviet psychiatric institution before escaping to the US.
Signe Baumane is a Latvian born animator, children’s book illustrator and teacher. Baumane began working for Latvia’s Dauka studio in the 1980s before emigrating to the US in 1995. There she gained work as an animator with Bill Plympton, the independent director of bizarrely surreal works such as I Married a Strange Person (1997) and Idiots and Angels (2008). She has produced fifteen short films of her own and written a novel. With Rocks in my Pockets, her feature-length debut, Signe Baumane fulfils just about every function on the film and, as she says, set out to make a work that was one hundred percent under her artistic control.
The first few minutes have a bewildering quality that make you wonder just what it is you are seeing. The animation is of a very limited quality and spells indie animation experiment, which is frequently ends up being a watching chore – see Consuming Spirits (2012) for a recent example. There is also Baumane’s narration, which comes through an offputtingly thick East European accent where your initial impression is that this is for comic effect before it dawns that the entire film is going to be narrated this way. However, about the point that Baumane tells the story of her grandmother Anna in the forest trying to drown herself and promptly turns around to suggest the way in which she is doing it wrong and the right way to kill oneself (the solution leads to the film’s title), one is immediately in love with Rocks in My Pockets.
Baumane has described Rocks in My Pockets as “a funny film about suicide.” She illustrates the stories of her grandfather Indilus and grandmother Anna, two of her aunts and her own struggles with mental illness after being diagnosed and placed in a Soviet hospital before escaping to the US. All of the stories are extraordinary as they are funny – Indilus the impractical entrepreneur who spent two years forging Soviet banknotes before realising that he had drawn them wrong; the heartbreaking struggles of her grandmother to carry forty buckets of water a day up the hill for the cows and feed the children on rabbit meat; the stories of the decaying sanity of one aunt who lost her vitality after marrying and the other who became obsessed with marrying to the point of imagining she was engaged to her lodger. In the telling of these, Baumane distils the essence of family tragedies and re-presents them in a way that is cheerfully wry at the same time as the material is cuttingly dark. Some of the observations that Baumane illustrates – the way the grandmother Anna goes from discovering the mother rabbit having eaten her own young to finding an epiphany about her motherhood to Baumane’s ruminations on the nature of her own suicidal thoughts and depression – are chillingly good. Indeed, forget about the absurdity of movie melodrama treatment of mental illness in films like Shine (1996) and A Beautiful Mind (2001), this may be one of the finest films yet that gives a realistic and credible portrait of mental illness.
The nearest equivalent you could find to Rocks in My Pockets might be Marjane Satrapi’s own animated exorcism of her autobiographical troubles on screen in Persepolis (2007) – perhaps a Persepolis that had been turned on its head and given a thorough working over by Bill Plympton. The Plympton influence comes through undeniably in Baumane’s artwork. Though the autobiographical material never jumps off into the rampant surrealism of Plympton’s work, she follows the same play of incongruous images and juxtapositions in a wholly absurdist manner. Elsewhere, Baumane is not above jumping off into other styles such as the use of papier-m’ch– animation and cardboard model cutouts.
(Winner in this site’s Top 10 Films of 2014 list).