Depression and suicide are at the heart of Signe Baumane’s very personal, poignant and darkly funny new animated feature.
Just across from the IFC Film Center in Greenwich Village a man is trying to stuff a reluctant, full-size boa constrictor into a carry bag. (The snake is not particularly in a mood to cooperate.) I watch the spectacle for a few moments before crossing Sixth Avenue and entering the IFC. As it turns out the constrictor won’t be the only snake I come across this evening; the next one turns up in the film I’ve come to watch—Signe Baumane’s very personal, poignant and darkly funny animated feature Rocks in my Pockets.
Signe’s snake is more what’s known in mythology (though not in the film) as a “naga”—a slithery reptile sporting a pair of arms and a human head; in the movie’s mythology he represents the tempting lure of suicide.
Suicide is the subject of Rocks in my Pockets—suicide and the depression that runs through generations of Signe’s family, a mental illness that claimed the lives of many of her cousins and cut short her grandmother’s life. (The film intertwines those tragedies with the tragedy of her native Latvia at the hands of Nazis and communists.) With Robin Williams’ shocking suicide still in peoples’ minds, Rocks provides a valuable insight to how depression can derail and destroy a person’s life.
The film served as a form of therapy for Signe, a way of coming to grips and conquering the suicidal thoughts that (on thankfully rare occasions) still surface into her consciousness. It’s an animated monologue wryly narrated by Signe herself, filled with arresting, surreal imagery. (Heads are opened up, brains are removed to be sliced and diced, people turn into puddles and animals, and a counterpoint to the naga—a heart-nosed animal with a full set of limbs—helps Signe battle her suicidal thoughts.)
The film combines Signe’s simple, almost childlike 2D animation with photographed, organic looking paper mache backgrounds—the whorls of an exposed brain, eyeballed urban buildings, their claustrophobic interiors and the like. After Effects motion tracking kept both elements locked in synchronization during carefully pre-planned camera moves.
In a post-screening Q&A Signe explains Rocks in my Pockets origin. “I started to write down thoughts about how not to kill myself. When I started to go into my family [history] I realized it was a feature film. The family tried to stop me, but my mom and dad loved it. My mom said ‘I’ll defend you [from them] until the day I die.’
In spite of the tremendous life challenges Signe’s depression dealt her, her attitude towards the disease is surprisingly evenhanded: “Depression isn’t entirely evil; it made me a better person and more understanding of other people.” Or, as she puts it in Rocks, “extending my hand to other people keeps me from slashing my wrists with a kitchen knife.”
Rocks in my Pockets can be seen until Thursday September 11th at the IFC Center in New York City. It’s also playing September 12-18 at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles. For additional information visit the film’s website http://rocksinmypocketsmovie.com.