'Rocks in My Pockets': Karlovy Vary Review

Rocks in My Pockets Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Karlovy Vary Film Festival

Rocks in My Pockets Still - H 2014

A very personal animated film that explores depression and suicidal tendencies with wit, surreal invention and insight.

New York-based Latvian director Signe Baumane ("Teat Beat of Sex") gets personal in her depression-themed feature that combines paper-mache sets and hand-drawn animation.

KARLOVY VARY -- A Latvian family’s history of depression and suicide attempts is vividly brought to life in animated form in Rocks in My Pockets, from New York-based Latvian animation artist Signe Baumane (Teat Beat of Sex).

This partially autobiographical tale chronicles the lives of three generations of Baumane's family, covering roughly a century of history, during which the small Baltic state (current population: just under 2 million) was occupied several times. But though the film’s historical-political background provides texture and interesting parallels -- since depression could be seen as an undesired subjugation of the mind -- Rocks in My Pockets is mainly concerned with a very subjective personal history of three generations of women, all prey to depression and dark thoughts. Animated in a striking combination of real paper-mache sets and props and hand-drawn 2D figures, the film explores with wit, surreal invention and insight something left far too often undiscussed.

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The first animated film to premiere in competition at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, this unusual feature autobiography will open in New York and L.A. in early September, courtesy of Zeitgeist Films, and should appeal to festivals and niche distributors elsewhere.

The film opens with an animated girl pushing a paper-mache rock uphill, thus combining real objects, moved through frame-by-frame animation, and pencil-drawn animation for the characters. Baumane herself provides the heavily accented, English-language voice-over, with none of the on-screen characters being played by actors, though Baumane does sometimes resort to direct dialog, playing all the different roles in funny voices.

The titular rocks are missing from the pockets of Baumane’s grandmother, Anna, who found herself wading into a shallow river with the intention of killing herself in the mid-twentieth century but who didn’t drown because her pockets were empty, suggesting she “had an idea but no clear plan,” as Baumane puts it. The writer-director-narrator then connects this episode to some of her own experiences, much later, in New York City, where she not only worked as an assistant to Bill Plympton, a clear influence, but she would also study up on all the intricacies of how to successfully hang oneself, as illustrated in a blackly comic sequence.

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The film thus goes back and forth between the Baumanes' family history back in Latvia, where cows, horses and rabbits appear and disappear depending on the needs and imposed laws of the ruling Russians, Nazis or Soviets, and the director’s own life in Latvia and abroad, where she continued to struggle with her own mental health issues. Other themes are explored as well, including the insane jealousy of Anna’s husband, visualized with typical economy and inventiveness by having the men that her grandfather sees talking with his much younger wife all shake their DNA helixes in her face as a sort of mating call.

To illustrate the psychology of the characters, Baumane often uses visual examples to illustrate what they are thinking, such as when Anna, who’s struggling with depression while trying to raise eight children in rural Latvia during WWII, sees a rabbit eat its own young, which leads to similarly dark thoughts about her own offspring, thoughts that are thankfully reversed in equally well-illustrated fashion not much later.

The second part of the film, which focuses mainly on Baumane’s cousins -- the director herself is billed as “Grandchild #7” -- feels a little more unwieldy because the narrative, which until then simply toggled between the experiences of Granny and her grandchild Signe, has to branch out in different directions as Baumane’s female cousins, three of which also battle depression, have to be introduced.

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The director clearly takes depression and suicidal urges and the possibility they may be hereditary very seriously but that doesn’t mean that the film isn’t often very witty. The visuals follow suit, with the oppressive and gloomy backgrounds, with their dark colored splashes of paint on black paper, contrasting with the softer, pencil-outlined and pastel-colored look of the characters. Besides Plympton, clear influences come, perhaps unsurprisingly, mainly from Eastern Europe, with Rocks reminiscent of the animated films from Latvia’s northern neighbor, Estonia; the surreal work of Czech director Jan Svankmayer and the films of Russian animator Yuri Norstein, whose moody atmosphere and use of animals in 1975's Hedgehog in the Fog are clear touchstones.

Kristian Sensini’s score is almost constantly present behind the voice-over and ably switches gears whenever necessary to conjure the right moods without ever taking center stage itself.

Production company: Signe Baumane Studio
Writer-Director: Signe Baumane
Producer: Signe Baumane
Co-producer: Sturgis Warner
Director of photography: Signe Baumane
Editor: Wendy Cong Zhao
Composer: Kristian Sensini
Sales: New Europe Film Sales
No rating, 89 minutes