In This Crazy World, How Do You Stay Sane?

in 49th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

by Cerise Howard

In veteran animator Signe Baumane’s marvellous autobiographical debut feature, a young, artistic Latvian-American woman looks for clues to her struggles with depression in her family’s past. Her backwards gaze across two prior generations especially hones in on the simultaneously dramatic yet dreary and hardscrabble life endured by her Grandmother, Anna, whose early death at 50 may well have been a suicide.

Certainly, it seems Anna had form in this department, notwithstanding her family’s unwillingness to talk of such things. And hence, the film’s title: one day, Anna was discovered standing forlornly in a pond in the Latvian forest. Her granddaughter’s surmise is that she had wanted to drown herself, and would have but for the absence of some rocks in her pockets to weigh her down.

The film’s title clearly indicates that it is also Signe whose pockets are thus encumbered, and that she too has been burdenedby years of mental instability. But from whence emerged her personal demons (often made manifest in the film)? Rocks in My Pockets explores a very particular, personal scenario by way also of probing auniversal old chestnut — how much of what we are is parts nature, heredity and predestination (here, mental illness) and how much is parts nurture? Were Anna’s troubles, for example, less innate and morea product of profound disappointment and detachmentafter an adult life that began full of big city promise turned to one of prolonged drudgery and isolation, relentless child-bearing (8 sprogsin quick succession) and the quotidian horrors and deprivations of WWII-era occupations (with the Russians invading Latvia, then the Germans, and then the Russians again)?

Baumane’s investigations into her family’s mental misadventures focus on the distaff side. The stories of five women, herself included, are considered in a sprawling, tangential fashion, with the director’s loquacious take on events omnipresent in voice-over and in the highly figurative on-screen accounts of the events, often rendered blackly humorous, which her Latvian-accented narration describes.

The animation incorporates hand-crafted 3D papier-mâché sculptures and gorgeous hand-drawn animated characters and proves wonderfully effective in conveying something of the experiences of depressive episodes in a poetic fashion which live-action films dealing with similar subject matter — typically through the conspicuous, mannered “tic-ing” of familiar celebrity bodies — just cannot match for authenticity, in all their hackneyed actorliness.

Rocks in My Pockets isn’t a film for the trigger warning set, for those who declaim a need for clear warnings of material which could re-awaken trauma ahead of that material’s cultural consumption. Rather, its daring opening gambit is a deliciously macabre consideration of various ways one might more effectively attempt to commit suicide, were one of a mind — or rather, out of one’s. But in terms of its current day “politically correct” credentials, this is a film which shinesnonetheless, asits representation of disability — here, debilitating and even life-threatening mental illness — is wholly the heartfelt product of one actually thus afflicted. This can only be considered a boon for the disability-in-film lobby, understandably fed up with inauthentic depictions of its constituency from actors “cripping up”, even when done so sympathetically in such as the agreeably bizarre recent vehicle for Michael Fassbender (hidden though for most of the film behind a giant papier-mâchéhead), Frank (Lenny Abrahamson, 2014), which also screened in Karlovy Vary.

Rocks’ feminist credentials are top notch too, not just for its inarguably pervasive feminine voice as the extremely labour-intensive and highly personal work of a woman filmmaker, but also for its perspicacious critique of the societal pressures endured by five female members of its maker’s family across three generations. One of the key images from the film is of a stoppered jar which, as its cloudiness fades, reveals a dowdy, careworn Anna trapped within while her husband, once her dashing older lover but now a faded captain of industry turned aloof, fiercely jealous, domestic tyrant, is free to live life according to his own imperatives in the world outside. His world.

The film is in fact full-to-bursting with captivating images, in its highly sculpted widescreen backgrounds and in the witty and concise animation of its multiple characters and gallows humour flights of fancy. Kristian Sensini’s score does the filmfurther favours, sympathetically matching the action throughout with appropriately Eastern European flavoured accompaniment. If there is any one thing that does grate a little about Rocks in My Pockets, it’s that director Baumane voices all of the characters herself, when a little variation would have provided some relief; none of her vocal characterisations are much of a remove from her own voice. On the other hand, this one-voice-for-all strategy makes perfect narrative and thematic sense, for is Signe Baumane, within and without the film, not in fact herself a product of them all?

Edited by Yael Shuv