Karlovy Vary 2014: To be alive and well is a daily struggle in Signe Baumane’s ‘Rocks in My Pockets’

The director describes ‘Rocks in My Pocket’ as a “funny movie about depression”, but the first animated film to compete in Karlovy Vary is tenderly heartbreaking and surprisingly optimistic.

Born in Latvia, Signe Baumane studied and made her first film in Russia. In 1977 she found herself in the US, as a ‘foreigner of exceptional abilities’, where she continued working as an animator building a rich filmography of exquisite short films that travelled to festivals all around the world, from Berlin to Sundance, and winning numerous awards.

‘Rocks in My Pockets’ is a deeply autobiographical film that begins in its creator’s inner world and from the depression the director often finds herself fighting. On its fascinating course it take in some of her most intimate family stories, beginning in 1920’s Latvia.

It is there and then that Baumane’s grandmother attempts to commit suicide by jumping into a river by her house, but forgets to fill her pockets with stones in order to sink to the bottom. The film tells her story, the story of a young girl that managed to go to school and get an education, that became a secretary, that fell in love with her enthusiastic and much older boss, that was trapped into a difficult life full of jealousy, children and hardships, in a country which was ruled and broken by Russian invaders, followed by Germans and then Russians again.

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The film tells the story of the country and of the grandmother, her children and grandchildren, cousins of the director, in search of a common thread or DNA strand that could be held accountable for a hereditary disease that is passed on to each generation and which the director has come to terms with and has learned to live with, in an uneasy co-existence.

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The story is positively enchanting, from beginning to end, at times so bitter you can almost taste it in your mouth, at other times tender and moving, often sweet or cynically funny. The story talks about so much more than the director’s family history: it is about the struggle that life is, the vain attempt to find meaning in it all, about politics and history, about medicine, the way we see ourselves through others, woman’s place in society, about sexuality, social structures and love.

This is all illustrated using charming and poetic animation that manages to add to the narration by depicting feelings and emotions. It is often reminiscent of an illustrated children’s book but the language and ideas are definitely mature. The world of her sketches exists within another world, of scenery made out of papier mache, filmed using stop motion animation, which gives the film a unique aesthetic character.

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Baumane lists the Russian animator Yuriy Norshteyn and also Jan Švankmajer and Bill Plympton as the main influences on the way she works and the truth is this becomes clear when observing details of her sketches and the anthropomorphism of animals throughout the film. However, what one witnesses more than anything here is her personal signature and stamp, on a work of art that belongs to her completely.