With Rocks In My Pockets, Signe Baumane takes us on an animated journey inside her head to experience “the badly wired building” of her depressive mind — “when once or twice a year, for no reason at all, a little needle pokes and the balloon empties, and hundreds of razor blades slash my soul,” she describes. “If life ends with death anyway, what is the meaning of life,” she queries in her darkest moments of suicidal despair.
Baumane wonders about the fact that her own episodes of depression and obsessive fantasies of suicide seem indigenous to so many members of her extended family. Her grandmother, Anna, died at the age of fifty, and the circumstances of Anna’s death remain a mystery. Baumane sets out on a quest to understand what became of her grandmother and several other of her cousins — Miranda, the aspiring artist so eager to please; Linda, the marriage-crazed genius; and Irbe, the music teacher who hears voices. In doing so, Baumane rewrites their stories and her own story to unlock family and survival secrets.
This is not your Walt Disney or even Pixar variety of animation. This is a serious adult film that will lead you to examine some terribly frightening and uncomfortable notions. The film tackles ambivalence towards work, marriage, parenting, and all form of adult choices and responsibilities. The Latvian writer, animator, director, and narrator may cause you to contemplate the psychological impact of having lived in a place and time where political turmoil so profoundly compromised one’s daily existence. If you are able to grin and bear it, you may be rewarded with renewed insight into depression, its manifestations, causes, ramifications and possible remedies.
Baumane completed some thirty thousand drawings for Rocks in My Pockets. She combines hand drawn 2D-characters and 3D-paper maché sets (inspired by paper maché sculptures that Baumane completed under contract for noted Italian designer, Aspesi and his flagship store in Milan) to tell the story that she narrates herself.
In one sequence in the film, Baumane relates how she meets a smiling old woman at a bus stop who perpetually dances to music she hears playing in her own mind. “What did she do to deserve music?” Baumane asks, in reaction to the voices in her own mind that, by contrast, continually direct Baumane to contemplate suicide. In the same way that some consider life too short and dedicate their life’s work to eradicating death and disease, while others perpetually mourn the time they are present — it is a profound and curious mystery indeed.
Rocks in My Pockets is Baumane’s first feature length animation film. She previously directed fifteen short films. For a taste of her unique and baudy wit, visit Vimeo to watch an episode or two of Teat Beat of Sex.
I spoke with the animated, engaging, and surprisingly upbeat Signe Baumane when she was in San Francisco this past week. When I asked her what we can look forward to as her next feature project, she said that she wants to make a film about marriage. “If you’re married eight times, obviously you don’t know anything. If you’re married one time, you know only one. But two times, it’s like you’re an expert,” she proclaimed while smiling wryly at her co-director and partner, Sturgis Warner, seated just across the table.
Sophia Stein: How did you decide to make an animated feature about suicide?
Signe Baumane: I take on something that bothers me, something that interests me at the moment. So, in the past, I made short films about dentists, about sex – Teat Beat of Sex, we have fifteen of those. One thing that bothers me every now and then – like twice a year — I get depressed. I suffer a fit of depression. So I thought that I would explore those thoughts that I have about “erasing myself.” Let’s go into that head, and see if something can come out, I thought.
Sophia: One of the questions that you raised was if there is any evolutionary advantage to this type of suffering. What did you conclude?
Signe: Some time ago, I read this article in the New York Times that referenced how Darwin wrote some of his best works when he was depressed. The article asked: “If depression was so bad, why did evolution leave that depression with humans?” There must obviously be some benefits to it, they posited. According to scientists, it noted, “depression” resides in the same part of the brain where deep focus resides. Deep focus is good for the species; it means you actually discover new ideas. When you go into this deep focus, you are able to solve problems.
I read that article almost five years ago, and every time that I’ve been depressed since then, I think, “What is that pain? Where is it coming from? What is that focus?” Because there is “a focus” when you are depressed. I realize that the suffering and pain comes from me focusing on that ever-elusive “self.” When you’re depressed, you’re so acutely focused on that self — and yet you can’t even understand what that self is? As I describe in the film, the way I try [to overcome my depression], is to go outside my apartment, outside myself into other people. That type of contact can counteract the effects of my depression.
Sophia: I thought that was beautifully told in the film at the end where your character visits her neighbor. I thought that section was just beautifully realized. What other discoveries did you make in the process of working on the film?
Signe: One of the most important discoveries I made early on was that feature film has different rules, different ways of storytelling than short film. In a short film, you are pretty free. You go in and do whatever you want. You don’t have to worry so much about structure. You can experiment.
With the feature film, I went into it thinking, I’m just going to talk about my sick mind and trying to erase myself. Thinking ha-ha-ha, how funny it will be! — how many ways there are to kill yourself, hundreds right? — but for me as a person, only one or two are acceptable because I would never jump under a moving train, because it would delay everybody else behind me! But when you think about it, that’s absurd. What does it matter, you’re going to be dead, right? But nooo, because of the way I am, I want to be considerate to everybody around me.
Sophia: Except, perhaps, yourself.
Signe: So I was writing this particular train of thought on the absurdity of planning and plotting my own suicide, I wrote five pages, and I was like wait – these kind of thoughts don’t sustain this feature arc. You have to have a character, you have to have a story.
So, I was like, o.k., let me go into this family history – because my family has a lot of history. So once I started to write about my family history, I couldn’t stop. I would write chunks of material and run it by Sturgis Warner, the theatre director who co-produced my film. (He is actually my life partner, as well). He would help me to shape the material by asking, “Why is this happening? Why is that important?” He has experience working with new playwrights.
So, at the end, once it had taken shape, then he said: “You know, for me, I want to know how does it feel from inside, to experience the depression?” And I was like, “I’m not gonna go there.” And he says, “Well, if you don’t go there, there will be no film.” I was like, “I really don’t want to go there because it’s not interesting for other people.” “No, it’s interesting for me!” he reassured me. “Well, I don’t want to go there because it’s too painful,” I admitted — like when you start to think about cake, you get hungry. Once you start to think about sex, you get horny, and once you start thinking about depression, you get depressed — that’s how it is.
Sophia: Yes, it frightened me, watching parts of the film – because I thought, it feels dangerous to go down that dark hole.
Signe: I know. It was. It was really, really hard. And if not for Sturgis, I would not have done it.
Sophia: One of the images that I liked in your film was your use of the six rocks to represent the symptoms of your depression. Can you talk about those six rocks and the symptoms they symbolize?
Signe: The symptom that hits me first — the number one rock — is “the dread,” the dread that something bad is going to happen. Not feeling safe, you know? I really admired Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. In his film, there is this dread that the planet is going to collide. The very act of it happening is not as frightening as the dread itself. You don’t know when it will happen, and you live in anticipation of something horrible taking place.
The other big one, for me, is that “pain.” When you cut your hand, it bleeds, and it hurts. But when you experience that depression-pain, you don’t see anything bleeding. It’s not like a pain-pain, but it’s a pain, nevertheless. That pain is unbearable — like you can’t sometimes breathe, it’s so horrible.
Another one, for me, is the feeling of guilt. I can recognize my kin, the people of my making, the people who tend to get depressed, in that they apologize all the time. “I’m sorry I didn’t open the door fast enough.” “I’m sorry I put the cup in the wrong place.” “I’m sorry.” From the outside, you say, what’s the big deal, you didn’t open the door fast enough? What’s the big deal, you stepped on my toe accidentally? You didn’t mean it. I understand it. But from inside, the feeling of guilt is so tremendous, it’s big out of proportion. It’s like “the end of the world.” That is one of the symptoms.
And then, of course, obsessive thoughts. In my case, it would be obsessive thoughts of killing myself, or obsessive thoughts about being guilty, or obsessive thoughts that something horrible is going to happen. Your mind is just latching onto these negative thoughts, and you can’t stop it.
Self-destructive behavior is another stone. In my case, I’m a pretty healthy person – I eat healthy, I don’t smoke, I drink in moderation, but there are these things that I recognize as self-destructive behavior, which I keep in check — but for some people, it gets out of hand. In my case, it’s a small thing. For instance, I’d have ten dollars til the end of the month, and today would be the 15th, and I’d say, “Ah, what the hell, I’ll spend it on ice-cream. I don’t care. I’m just going to live for this particular moment, and then deal with consequences later.” In earlier times, it was like, “I’m gonna eat this cake, and I don’t care for the consequences.” “I’m gonna drink until I pass out, and I don’t care for consequences,” or “I’m gonna cross the street and see what happens — although the traffic is crazy.” When I was young, I would walk out onto the street in the middle of the night in the most dangerous neighborhoods just to see what happens, just like that. Or have sex with people who were not appropriate.
Confusion is another symptom. Disorientation — where you can’t make decisions. You don’t know where you are, who or what is important or not important.
There are more symptoms. I am just talking here about the symptoms that are most significant in my experience.
Sophia: You wrote the screenplay first, but then you had to create visualizations to accompany all that narrative text. How did you go about visualizing that narrative? What is your process?
Signe: For me, there are two parts of my brain that are completely separate. I love to read. Since the moment I learned to read, I wanted to be a writer. That is my natural default state. That’s the inner space of ideas that are not visual, or that are barely visual. Then there is this other part of me that is visual. Because I had been focused on writing since the time of my youth, I didn’t develop that part of myself. When I went into animation, I had to push myself to develop that part.
Sophia: How did you get into animation?
Signe: By accident. I studied philosophy for five years at Moscow State University, and at the end of my studies, I didn’t want to teach. A friend of mine (who is now a famous singer in Russia) suggested, “I really like your doodles, and I would like to see them move. Why don’t you do animation?” I thought, animation sounds better than teaching philosophy — but little did I know. So, I had to make a portfolio to apply for jobs. I took the doodles and made storyboards with them, and I took these around to animation studios in Moscow. They looked at my storyboards and said, “You have no drawing skills, you can’t possibly be an animator for us.” (Because I had never studied art, right?) “You have great ideas, you could be a director … but unfortunately, we have plenty of our own directors,” they told me.
So then I went to Latvia, and they said, “Well, you know you can’t draw, right?” “And we don’t have place for directors … but you can start as the lowest position in our studio, just cell painting.” And I was such a bad cell painter. Because I had wanted to be a writer, and then for five years as a philosophy student, I was trained to speak and develop ideas and all that — so my hands were growing out of my ass! I would dip the brush — it was all manual at that time — and the paint would just drizzle all across the cell. I would put down my hand, and my hand would be in the paint. Every cell that I painted, they had to throw out.
I’m sorry, it’s a long story. I stuck it out because I was in love, you know, with this medium.
Sophia: How did you go from painting cells to making your first animation film? Did you go to film school?
Signe: I never studied art or film or any of that. The studio kept me – I don’t know for what reason, they kept me.
Sophia: They just liked you.
Signe: They liked me. They felt that there was potential. They just liked to keep around talented people. Just in case, just in case …
The Soviet Union was giving money to this particular animation studio. Then, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, around 1990 — you know how when the body is about to collapse, it just pukes and vomits and shits and pisses, it has these fits in throes of the death? We knew that the end was coming, so, for some reason, one of the fits of the collapsing country was that the government gave money to the arts. Too much money to the arts. The studio got too much funding, and they didn’t know what to do with it.
“We have these six talented people that we keep as our slaves for two years painting cells, why don’t we just give them some of the money, and the chance to make a film,” they decided. So I made my first film, The Cow, a two-minute animation with that money. After that, I made two more films in Latvia, and then I moved to New York, with just $300, a tourist visa, no work permit, nothing. I was selling drawings on 7th and West Broadway, and I was about to turn around and go back to Latvia, when I entered Bill Plympton’s studio. Bill is a independent animation star. He looked through my portfolio and my films and said, “You’re a very talented woman, would you like to work for me?” I was like – [incredulous exhale – Pff] “Yeah!!!” The job was to paint cells, and now, of course, the stakes were so high. He paid very little money (which was fine), but I had to get really good. And I got really good. And now — I’m not boasting — I really am the best cell painter!
Sophia: I was struck by the color palette of your film, Rocks In My Pockets. It’s so vivid, so sumptuous – in contrast to the darkness of your stories. Was that by conscious design? By way of counterpoint to the material? Or was it an unconscious choice?
Signe: The thing is, you make the film you can make. I absolutely love color, and I didn’t know that about myself when I was studying philosophy. But when I started to make my own films, people were talking about my color choices, telling me, “You have really good color sense.” And I was like, “Really?!” And then, I started to notice how colors would excite me, and that sometimes when I would get together with people who were working with colors, we could talk for hours about the different shades and names of colors. So, of course, I could not make a pale film, or a black and white film, because color is too important to me. But also, since the film is so personal — it’s my personality, it’s my world. I invited you into my world, and my world is full of color and intensity … but also this pain and grief and suffering. That is the absurdity of experiencing depression — that the world is so colorful and interesting and amazing, and you still want to kill yourself. That is the paradox.
Sophia: You introduce two fantasy characters in your visuals.
Signe: When I wrote the script, they were not there. The voiceover never mentions these characters. I code named the one “Water Spirit,” which was for us, ‘depression spirit,’ and the other was “Forest Spirit,” which represents the will to live. One creature lives in water and has a snake-like body, and it tries to lure Anna inside the water. For me, the water is ancient symbol of emotions. It can be calm, it might be upset, it could be deep or shallow — and that’s what you say about feelings. They could be dangerous. You can drown if you don’t control your feelings. So the water spirit lives in there. The Forest Spirit is the opposite. He’s a warm-blooded animal who looks like a mix between wolf and dog, and he shows Anna how to survive in the forest. He represents the will to live, whereas the other spirit represents the will to die.
Sophia: You never met your grandmother, she died before you were born. So your material is all from the stories you have heard about her and your imagination?
Signe: My grandmother died, we don’t know how; nobody talks about it. I have cousins and relatives who tried or committed suicide. I tried to commit suicide. So these are all facts. But what happened inside my grandmother’s head, how she made decisions, what she was thinking, that of course, is the stuff of imagination.
When I was growing up, I always identified with my grandfather because he is such an adventurous man – a very ambitious, entrepreneurial, enterprising character, and that’s me, you know? I never knew anything about my grandmother because nobody would talk about her. Only later, as I was growing older, did I start asking questions. I realized, wait a minute, it’s not my grandfather with whom I feel such kinship, it’s my grandmother. That realization blew my mind, you know.
Sophia: When you were in college, you confided to a therapist that earlier on in your life, you had attempted suicide. As a result of this confession, you were hospitalized immediately. What was your experience as a patient in a psychiatric hospital in the Soviet Union? Was it at all therapeutic or restorative? Was it harmful, or was it just something to be endured until the time of your release?
Signe: I was on a break from my philosophy studies at University when I went to talk with a local psychiatrist in the small town where my parents lived. I imagined the psychiatrist would be a wise woman who would talk me through things, who might help me to get my footing on this slippery ground. (It was more like a marsh under me, I felt as if I was sinking into something that I wasn’t able to pull myself out of on my own.)
The moment that she heard that I had tried to commit suicide when I was eighteen, she concluded, “That’s it, we’re done. You’re going to a mental hospital.” I assured her that I would never try to commit suicide again, and I asked her, “Can you please just work with me?” “No, we have to put you under surveillance. I’m not letting you go home,” she responded. I can see that she was trying to protect me from myself and how my assurances might be bogus, as far as she was concerned.
The hospital was frightening. It was cold and uninviting, and I saw a lot of horrible things there that I shouldn’t have seen. They were not for my eyes to see — on top of everything I was suffering. The most traumatic sights were people who were turned into vegetables by the pills that they took. There was a young woman who would just walk around and say the same three words over and over all day long, and then she would take a handful of pills and go to sleep. “What happened to her?,” I asked. They told me that when she was eighteen, she was raped and started to have psychological problems, and was checked into the mental hospital. For me, a person who came into the hospital with seemingly minor problems, it was like, this can happen to me if I stayed there. So this became an incentive to get out and never come back.
In the hospital, they treated me with handful of pills each day, and they make sure you take them. They really don’t let you not take them. Then one day, they said, now you have to get off them, “Here is a schedule of how you get off of them.” A few months later, I took the last pill. Two weeks passed and all of a sudden, this thing comes back — the pain, the confusion, I’m back where I was. So the pills, they were just like a smoke bomb. They cover up the symptoms and obstruct your view. The answers to my questions about the meaning of life, why I live, the purpose of life, they were not answered.
So I knew I can again go to a psychiatrist and get locked up, or I can deal with this myself. I became determined to sort this out on my own. I don’t advise it to anybody else — because, as I said, I had this philosophy education, I studied how to study, and I was able to go into the library in Moscow and read books and ask questions and sort it out on my own.
Which, you know, you never sort it out completely. It’s a work in progress.
Sophia: In the New York Times review of your film, film critic Nicholas Rapold mentions William Styron’s Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, in which Styron describes his own pathway out of depression: “for me the real healers were seclusion and time.” Depression is such a pervasive part of what it means to be alive, and yet it is something that is so rarely discussed.
Signe: That is the thing. How you can separate depression from the human condition. On the one hand, I’m happy that there are all these diagnoses now. On the other hand, once you’re born, perhaps there should be one [blanket] diagnosis — which is you’re human, you’re alive.
Sophia: My father is a retired psychiatrist who worked at Yale. I was talking to him about the diagnosis of “schizophrenia” that you received during your hospitalization. He commented that diagnosis must have been wrong. Are you convinced that the diagnosis of schizophrenia was wrong? Are you confused about that diagnosis? Where are you in relationship having been labeled like that?
Signe: Well, they changed the label. My parents bribed them to change it. So if I bribe them again, I can change it again, you know? Of course, schizophrenia was the wrong diagnosis, completely. I am bi-polar, I can say that for sure.
Sophia: I love the writings of Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, on the subject of depression. Moore talks about balance – that balance doesn’t mean being in the center or flat with your emotions. Moore acknowledges are times when we are all feel elated and times when we all become depressed, and that balance is appreciating the time that we spend in each state. He observes how important is to honor the time spent in that “underworld,” as it were.
Signe: I also feel like I don’t make depression my enemy. I want to feel or think that it makes me a better human being. It does give me a sense of empathy. It deepens my relationship with the world. I see the world in more shades. From the shadows, the world jumps out at me.
Top Image: From “Rocks In My Pockets,” a film by Signe Baumane. A Zeitgeist Films release.