There's a good chance that filmmaker Signe Baumane isn't on your radar yet, but with her first feature film, Rocks in My Pockets, being declared Latvia's submission for the Academy Awards this year, she should be. It's not just because of her Oscar submission that folks should be looking out for her though. It's because she and her style of animated filmmaking have something important to say, and it all comes from a very honest and personal place.
"Life and reality is so much more interesting than fiction," Baumane says, discussing how important the experience of living is to her art. "My life is more interesting than anything I could invent. And when you learn certain things through events, it's kind of good to share that knowledge."
See also: Review and showtimes for Rocks in My Pocket
Sharing her life experiences is exactly what this filmmaker does best though, as her feature film clearly shows. Rocks in My Pockets, which premieres in Miami at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on October 1, is an animated film that chronicles the experiences with depression and suicide of multiple women in Baumane's family, including her own. The concept of baring oneself so openly on screen seems terrifying, but it wasn't what she originally intended for the film to be.
"I actually didn't want to write any of my family's story," she admits, explaining that she originally wrote something more akin to one of her short works, Teat Beats of Sex. While that was a series of sexual experiences depicted through a woman's perspective, this idea had a more macabre twist to it, and the way it's depicted through a mixture of stop-motion, hand-drawn animation, papier-mâché, and digital effects is quite unique.
"I wanted to make a comedy about how I want to kill myself, so I wrote these five pages about how I would not kill myself," she said. "I'm a certain kind of person and I've been thinking about this and there are a lot of ways how people can kill themselves, but most of them are unacceptable to me. I would never jump under a subway car because I would delay all these people around me. You don't want to drag everyone else into your personal decision, right? If you're so considerate to other people, then why think about doing it at all? It's just an absurd thought."
It's hard to imagine that a person as considerate as Baumane would make a film about a subject as potentially disturbing as this, but the reality is that depression affects a lot of people. Even though she doesn't intend to educate her audiences on depression, it's a beautiful byproduct of the work. As such, individuals have come up to her after screenings to share their stories and gratefulness with her.
After one screening, she says that she had a young man explain that he'd pushed away his partner when given an ultimatum: get happy or we're done. Because of her film, he realized the problem with that approach and how his partner felt.
It's hard to imagine other filmmakers in animation who are pushing the boundaries of what the medium of film can do, especially knowing that most people consider it to be just a bunch of kids movies. But people like Signe Baumane are disproving that with each of their works, and for her it's a doubly interesting experience as both a marginalized female filmmaker.
"As a female filmmaker, you know from day one that you're going to be working on the margins of the industry. Instead of getting mad and upset, you should feel free. I feel free to make what I want instead of the formulaic approach that people expect," she said.
In bringing up Petra Costa's Elena and Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell as comparison points to her autobiographical and almost documentary-like format of storytelling, she responds by simply delivering more truth.
"I think women are bound to tell their histories. I don't think they have to invent fictional stories because they're comfortable telling stories from their lives. I think Polley and Costa and I are all very different in our approaches, but the three films work. They engage you, they make you think, and they stay with you for a long time."
And Rocks in My Pockets is definitely a film that sticks like glue, most notably an affecting monologue dedicated to describing the overwhelming and harsh nature of depression. Finding the right words to explain how something like this feels from inside was incredibly rough, Baumane says. She compares it to going on an arctic expedition.
"There's a danger that when you start thinking about it, your brain is gonna snap into that condition, and I really didn't want to do that but my co-producer, Sturgis Warner, said I had to," she said. Warner, who also served as the voiceover director and looked over Baumane's script, told her that she truly had to nail exactly what she felt or there'd be no film.
"So I wanted to make him happy, because I always want to make other people happy, and I went there like an explorer of the arctic on an expedition. I suffered and I came back. Meanwhile, half of the dogs on the expedition died off and I'm barely alive, but I came back and then I wrote the report of how depression feels from inside."
As downbeat as this sounds, especially with the knowledge that she could barely handle performing what she'd written for test audiences and in the recording studio, Signe Baumane seems truly dedicated to getting people as engaged with her comedic film as possible. At her screenings, she asks the audience questions after the film and offers artworks as rewards for folks who answer correctly.
Even more fun, she tosses rocks into the audience and promises years of luck in romance to the lucky few who catch them. It's a stark contrast to the idea of placing rocks in pockets to alleviate the struggling of drowning, but it's very much in tune with the dark sense of humor that comes with Rocks in My Pockets' brilliant depiction of depression.
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Rocks in my Pockets opens Wednesday, October 1, at Miami Beach Cinematheque. Director Signe Baumane will be in attendance for a Q&A on opening night. Visit mbcinema.com for tickets.