“I’m friends with my depression. It kills me, and it’s hard to live with, but it makes me the person I am and has made me stronger. It’s also made me realise my higher purpose as an artist, and that I am standing up to Hollywood!” So declares filmmaker Signe Baumane, a New York-based independent animator confronting cinematic approaches and treatments of mental illness in candid and encouragingly optimistic ways.
Having initially marked herself out as an animator uninterested with staying within the confines of mainstream wholesomeness – her first short films invariably dealt with sex, pregnancy, madness, and dentists, Baumane’s feature debut is a poignant and stunningly frank exploration of mental health widely described as ‘a funny film about depression’. Opening in her native Latvia during Soviet Union-era 1920s, Rocks in My Pockets (2014) sets about telling the true story of the director and her family’s fraught battles with depression and mental illness, conveyed by telling the stories of five women suffering from the same affliction.
These women are headed up by Anna, who, during the Great Depression, falls for and marries a man thirty years her senior, who stows her away in the forest and fathers eight children with her. Years later her granddaughter, Signe, asks her evasive father how her grandmother died, and suspects that she committed suicide. Signe’s battle with depression – which sees her locked away for months in a Soviet mental institution – only serves to highlight three of her cousin’s comparable symptoms, with the four women perhaps sharing a connection with their beleaguered grandmother.
Rebelling against societal norms, Signe goes on a journey of self-discovery, confronting her family demons and coming to terms with her own mental wellbeing in the process.
The winner of several awards at film festivals across the world, Rocks in My Pockets is an astonishing piece of work from a singular voice in independent animation filmmaking, one that emanated from a very personal side of director, writer, producer and animator Baumane’s persona. “I discovered early on that I fundamentally swung between two thoughts: every nine seconds I think about sex, because I love sex, and then every twelve seconds I think about not so much killing myself but erasing myself from existence,” she admits, describing how this formed the initial basis for her planned feature film. “When you have such strong impulses and intense thoughts, it’s difficult to maintain them all. So I started writing a script about how I would not kill myself, because whenever I have thought about ceasing to exist I address it very practically and ask myself how I personally would step out of existence.”
After assessing the multitude of ways one can kill themselves – “You have to be very careful about selecting it. You only get one or two chances, and it has to fit your personality, your lifestyle, your everything” – Baumane began writing a darkly comedic script that, as it progressed, soon turned into something far less abstract and more in line with a standardised structure, replete with characters and story arcs. These were almost exactly similar to those of her family, who have a rich history of mental breakdowns, and who also, as it turns out, didn’t like how she pillaged their lives for artistic merit.
“It’s one thing for me to reveal my secrets and talk about my sex adventures, but it’s a complete other thing to reveal other people’s secrets and what they hope would stay hidden,” says Baumane, who, though regretful, bristled at how her family felt they had copyright over mental illness. “There I was taking everything my family been trying to hide and exposing it in broad daylight, and it hurts me that they didn’t like it. I feel shame that I did it, but I told the story from my own perspective.”
However much this rigorously autobiographical film has led her family to struggle with the way she effectively stole their secrets, it’s outweighed by how much the film has controversially incited a conversation about mental health in her home country, a taboo subject that was rarely acknowledged let alone spoken about publically. The film ignited an attitude shift when it premiered in Latvia in August 2014 – and subsequently stayed in cinemas for a further seven months – as well as opened the gateway for psychologists and even celebrities to start a conversation the film was front and centre of. This is a considerable achievement, given how it came off the back of Baumane openly revealing how she tried to commit suicide at the age of eighteen while promoting the film.
“There have been discussions about mental health and illness that the country never had before, and I feel good about it. The film gave people the excuse and the opportunity to start talking about things that weren’t ever talked about. It’s very specifically Latvian and entrenched in Latvian history, about a Latvian person who belongs to a Latvian family, and that invited people there to recognise how their own families suffered the same events as mine.”
Considering the wider context, Rocks in My Pockets is perhaps the only film in recent memory to address mental illness in those exact words, something Baumane maintains is due to a stigma that continues to pervade and govern mainstream cinema. It’s the industry marketeers rather than the filmmakers that balk at plot synopses or even film titles involving negative terminology, which may be an indicator as to why Sundance favourite Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’s (2015) recently failed at the US box-office. “Maybe audiences are right when they have the idea that they only want to be entertained and not see films about people suffering. But what is a person’s definition of entertainment? To me, it’s something that transports you from your reality to another world and changes your point of view about yourself and your surroundings,” she says. “Entertainment is something that invites me to think and learn, which is why I make my own films.”
For a film made on a modest budget of close to $300,000, the combined stop-motion and hand-drawn animation style is remarkably accomplished, delving – like Pixar’s recent Inside Out (2015), into the minds of these characters and visually showing how they actually feel inside, something almost impossible in live action approaches. It’s all tied together by a voiceover from Baumane herself, which, thanks to intense training from theatre director Sturgis Warner, is as vivacious as the illustrations, even if she did initially want to hire Meryl Streep.
Bearing in mind her outwardly morbid thoughts, it’d be too easy to perceive Baumane as a hopeless depressive, yet what marks her out as entirely and refreshingly unique is her supreme openness, and how she augments these dark musings with charm and great wit. Rocks in My Pockets is as enjoyable as it is profoundly moving, and ends on an optimistic note that she concedes is the product of her becoming more educated about herself since making it. “I have hope, and I don’t know if it’s correct or not, but I have a personal opinion that we tend to over-diagnose something that is a simple part of human life. I do believe having a name for depression is a good thing, because when you formulate something you have a power over it. You’re given a tool, but I don’t know if it’s necessarily a disease that needs to be cured. It’s allowed me to realise my calling in life, after all”
Despite actually getting her film made was an achievement in itself, its success has allowed Baumane to consider making a second feature, which will combine her two biggest thoughts – sex and depression – into a film about, naturally, marriage. Having been married twice in her time, the film will feature less of her own voice and more of her thoughts and feelings about an archaic institution that has been subject to a shift in modern interpretations as far as gender roles are concerned. “How do you figure out marriage in 2015?” is the film’s driving issue, and based on the accomplishments of her maiden voyage it promises to be just as fascinating.
Rocks in My Pockets screens at London’s ICA cinema on Sunday 23 August 2015 as part of the Bechdel Test Fest. Tickets can be booked here
To find out more about Signe Baumane’s work, follow her on Twitter and visit her website
Words and interview by Edward Frost
This article, Signe Baumane Discusses Her Debut Feature, Rocks in My Pockets, first appeared on Film3Sixty Magazine.