Signe Baumane’s ‘Rocks in my pockets’ and the quest to stay sane in a crazy world

There is nothing easier than curing melancholia and other troubles of the mind, according to people who don’t have these troubles. All you need to do is think positively/go out more/eat healthier food/find God in your religion of choice/remember that others have it much worse than you/…(and so on and so forth, fill in the blanks) and the sun will shine again. Yes sir, it’s easy as pie. And if you can’t cure yourself and you die trying, you only have yourself to blame, as everyone and their mother is quick to point out.

Signe Baumane’s animated feature „Rocks in my Pockets” does not present easy cures and solutions, since no such cures exist. Instead, it talks honestly about coping with the daily struggle of „staying alive and sane”, a struggle which Baumane knows first-hand and many of those watching will recognise; those who can’t, will, perhaps, gain a bit more insight and empathy for these invisible pains that are such a common ingredient of being human. Above all, though, it’s simply a film for those who appreciate good independent films. I have to say, we’re not a spoiled bunch: it took more than a year since its release for me to finally be able to see this movie!

In an introductory video shown before the screening I attended at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts this past weekend, Signe Baumane explained her own diagnosis, bipolar disorder, then added, in a matter-of-fact tone, that we’ll get to watch work reflecting both poles of her personality: „You’ll see my thoughts about sex, which make me happy, and my thoughts about killing myself, which make me…not so happy”. This kind of frank conversation about things shocking and heavy, in a tone that makes them sound humorously absurd, seems to be characteristic of Baumane’s work. The ‘happy thoughts about sex’ were represented in a few of Baumane’s hilarious „Teat Beat of Sex” shorts, some of which can be found online . I wouldn’t recommend looking them up if you’re prudish, although Baumane’s depictions of body parts are so exaggerated and cartoonish I can hardly imagine anyone seeing them as pornography. In any case, they offer a great starter of an alternative to the male point of view that dominates most sexual content in pop culture.

The main event, feature-length „Rocks in my pockets”, was at least three times funnier than any film about depression has any right to be, although I suppose you do need a certain taste for the morbid to properly enjoy it (the cleaning inconveniences of suicide through hanging are discussed extensively at one point, for example). The concept is simple: Baumane narrates the stories of the women in her family who have suffered from mental illness, starting with her grandmother, as well as her own quest for sanity. The visuals are simple, too: hand-drawn cartoons moving through a world of stop-motion papier-mache sets.

Baumane’s drawings offer a lot of surreal and amusing visual gags, but the animation itself is limited and unlikely to make anyone swoon, especially in our contemporary world of flashy CGI blockbusters. „Rocks in my pockets” is very obviously a low-budget film, but it is art, if we understand art to be an authentic reflection of the artists’ imagination and personality. Baumane’s simultaneously compassionate and ironic voiceover is an acquired taste, I would assume. I absolutely love her accent, intonation and ‘acting’ of the story, but I can see how others may feel differently: I read on the filmmaker’s blog that her own mother recommended against Signe doing the voiceover. I, for one, think Signe Baumane should narrate everything, including my own life (or perhaps take turns in a select committee of All-Powerful Narrators that could also include Werner Herzog, Morgan Freeman and Patrick Stewart). Her way of adding humour and meaning to words is unique.

While mental illness is, inevitably a solitary experience, since we’re all trapped in our own heads from cradle to the grave, it’s impossible to divorce it from the larger contexts of our society, culture and politics. This is clear from ‘Rocks in my Pockets’ , too: the women in Signe’s family are burdened by the societal pressures related to marriage and motherhood to such a degree that a debate on mental illness as a gendered experience is surely warranted. Marriage in particular is presented mostly as a trap, a dead end (there is a very telling image of a woman literally trapped in a bottle while her husband looks in from the outside), and Baumane doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that her own path towards some measure of sanity started with rejecting such pressures and pursuing her artistic destiny as an independent woman. More women than men are diagnosed with mental health problems, and words like ‘hysteria’ are inextricably linked to feminine insanity; but what came first, the illness or the societal factors? Can we even expect women to be sane in a world that constantly undermines them and stymies their potential?

More broadly than that: after taking a good look at what’s going on around us, can we even expect anybody to be sane? Most of the discussion panel after the screening (which sadly, did not include Signe Baumane herself) focused on art therapy in general, and animation in particular, as a possible tool in the battle with mental illness. This is an interesting topic for sure, and the speakers presented good arguments for the healing potential of animation: the calming, focusing effect of its labour-intensive techniques and some of the more tactile materials like clay, the possibility of expressing in art things that would be too painful to put into words, the God-like feeling of creative control when inanimate objects are being brought to life. But an audience member rightfully pointed out that all of these techniques are still working within the larger societal system that is, perhaps, actively contributing in making people ill in the first place. In the time of Signe Baumane’s grandparents, Latvia endured the horrors and absurdities of a Soviet and a Nazi invasion, the loss of its independence, and a communist dictatorship. A single human being amidst such madness has almost no control over their own life.

How can we stay afloat, then? Art does seem to help, and so does human connection, as Signe Baumane tells us in her film. Reaching out to another human being, sharing with them a moment of joy will not protect us against the eventual heat death of the Universe or even our own man-made disasters of war and injustice, but for a day, an hour, a minute, it will give meaning to our lives. This is perhaps the most important thing you can take out of ‘Rocks in my Pockets’, a film which doesn’t strive to provide definitive answers.

The ICA screening of ‘Rocks in my Pockets’ was organised in collaboration with Little White Lies magazine and it is part of an year-long Bechdel Test Film Festival, which celebrates films that succeed in representing women in a positive and progressive light. If you haven’t seen Signe Baumane’s feature yet and it’s not screening anywhere near you, here’s the good news: you can also rent it online on Vimeo on Demand.