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Staying Sane with Rocks In My Pockets

In the feature-length animated film Rocks In My Pockets, the macabre and the whimsical collide when Latvian-born filmmaker Signe Baumane tries to track the history of her psychological turmoil, and that of five other women in her family. “In this crazy world, how do you stay sane?” she asks. “Can I escape my own destiny?”

Her story begins with Baumane’s grandmother, who, at twenty years old, left a desk job to live a peasant’s life with her former boss in remote Latvia. She filled her years with the scut work of birthing and breast-feeding eight children. Her neighbor found her in a shallow river, fully clothed, trying to end her own life like the Virginia Woolf did. But she lacked the rocks in her pocket that would allow her to complete the act.

Much like cartoonist and writer Alison Bechdel, Baumane turns her gaze toward her family in order to make sense of her own life. She examines her genetic patrimony in unconventional ways, churning out bursts of quick revelation and half-baked associations. “I look at my fecal matter” she says, searching for the answer to the cause of her grandmother’s death in the toilet. Baumane perfectly captures the rhythms of her family’s reaction to their shared legacy—a predictable hemiola of secrecy, denial, and get-over-it grit.

The coarse textures and somber tones of a Soviet-era Latvia, rendered here in dynamic papier-mache, stop-motion puppets, and pencil lines, are juxtaposed with the cerebral introspection and reckless-feeling honesty of Baumane’s voice-over narration. This is an intensely intimate project for her; it’s a first-person story, produced with a limited budget by Baumane as writer, director, animator, and producer.

The film’s dark, almost difficult-to-swallow subject matter is handled playfully throughout, layering tragedy with whimsical humor in a way that is never quite emotionally draining. But don’t watch it hoping to find therapeutic comfort. (“One must be considerate to one’s fellow citizens,” Baumane advises when discussing the mundane logistics of hanging oneself, “I’d use adult diapers.”) Her desperate need to examine the idiosyncratic goings-on of her brain, depicted as tender meat on a cutting board, provides fresh insight into the inscrutable affliction of chronic depression, and its frequent resolution, suicide. Baumane offers no alternative to the pain and persistence of this inherited demon, but instead, finds relief in the artistic pursuit of making her experience palpable on the screen.

The film Rocks In My Pockets will screen tonight at the release party for The Baffler‘s Issue 26, “Sickness and Pelf.”