the Soviet occupation of Latvia probably saved the life of animator Signe
Baumane’s grandmother, Anna, at least temporarily. The resulting privations and
exploitation provided a distraction from the depression and suicidal impulses
that plagued her all her life. Combining art and therapy, Baumane chronicles
the mental health trials of the women in her family, culminating with her own
struggles in Rocks in My Pockets (trailer here), which opens
tomorrow in New York.
father and his seven brothers and sisters revere their sainted mother, but
Baumane slowly pieces together a darker story. She was such a bright young
girl, her father saved and even borrowed to send her to college, making Anna
one of the few women in 1920s Latvia with an advanced education. Unfortunately,
the only job she found after graduation was as the secretary to the
entrepreneur who would become Baumane’s grandfather.
Anna was in awe of his erudition and sophistication, but his jealous
controlling side quickly surfaced after their marriage. Instead of living a
life of cosmopolitan glamour in the city, Anna dutifully followed her husband
into the forest, where he established a turpentine factory. Unlike many of his
schemes, it was relatively successful until the Soviets invaded, nationalizing it
and everything else in their wake.
eight months to feed, Anna rouses herself from her depression, navigating the life-and-death
challenges posed by the Soviets, the Germans, and then the Soviets again. In
fact, the Communists never stopped shaking down Anna and her family,
confiscating their provisions when they are on the outs as partisans, just as
they did when they were conquering oppressors.
to say, Soviet psychiatric care was not exactly scientifically or socially
progressive, either. It was mostly just about doping patients up, locking them
up, and stigmatizing them thereafter, as Baumane learns first hand. In between,
she revisits the sad history of many lost relatives, reading between the lines.
if it is animated, a film about depression sounds rather depressing, especially
when a good portion of it is set during the Communist era. However, Baumane’s
animation is quite striking, often taking viewers down surreal, symbolically
resonant rabbit holes, and her message is also empowering and ultimately upbeat.
In fact, the closing lines are absolutely unforgettable.
there is a prescriptive element to the film (tragically timely in the wake of
Robin Williams’ death), but animation enthusiasts can enjoy it simply on a
visual level. While Baumane tips her hat to Bill Plympton and Jan Svankmajer,
her hand-drawn figures and backgrounds often bring to mind the work of Sally Cruishank (although they are somewhat less colorful, perhaps reflecting the
subject matter and setting).
is a very personal film, but Baumane’s family experiences offer a highly relevant
and accessible perspective on the greater realities of depression and even
Twentieth Century Latvian history. She convincingly makes the sort of jump from
the private to the universal that Barabara Kopple’s glitzy, self-helpy Running from Crazy miserably failed to
pull off. Highly recommended for fans of animation and those who appreciate its
message, Rocks in My Pockets opens
this Wednesday (9/2) in New York at the IFC Center.
Labels: Animated films, Latvia, Signe Baumane