In the opening scene of Rocks in my Pockets, Signe Baumane narrates, in her bright, emphatic voice, a darkly comic meditation on the practicalities of suicide. It is a film packed with such deliberate contrasts, hybrid in genre and tone.
In one sense, it is pure confessional documentary: the stories it tells, spanning three generations of Baumane's extended Latvian family, are all true, or at least as true as any family history cobbled together from anecdote and inference can be. A large part of the film concerns her obstinate quest to sift the truth about her grandmother Anna's life and death from the mythologies that have collected around her. ‘She died in her sleep from sheer exhaustion,’ insist Anna's offspring, whose childhood memories consecrate her as the saintly, self-sacrificing centre of their universe. Faced with the fact of an empty bottle of pills found by her bedside, they insist it must have been an accidental overdose.
The realities of depression and other mental health conditions are proscribed topics in this family, and Rocks in my Pockets is, among other things, a defiant resistance to that silence. Baumane, who wrote, animated and directed the film, is also the only cast member, ventriloquising her relatives' lives in an attempt to vocalise her own origins. The family, she told us in a Q&A over Skype, are not happy that the film exists.
In other ways, it's as far from documentary as can be imagined, a surreal animated world of monstrous creatures, mutating bodies and literalised metaphors. Fantastical storytelling has always been a popular mode through which to represent the repressed and the unspoken, but Baumane's frank, direct narrative voice remains on a steadfast path of honest disclosure, even while her hand-drawn figures and her paper-mache sculptures become ever more bizarre and dreamlike.
In the Q&A, she described her use of animation as ‘a tool to show what is not visible to the eye.’ In realist cinema, surface is all we have: emotional states are represented by their external symptoms, by looks or words or tears or gestures. But in life, mental turmoil is rarely written on the skin, and Baumane uses her animation to drill into the depths of the body. Exposed brains and strands of DNA proliferate throughout the film; the opening sequence, in which she ponders the lesser-discussed realities of death by hanging – the spontaneous evacuation of the bowels and bladder – signals an enduring preoccupation with the abject things that live inside us.
Baumane is clearly compelled by the hidden histories that bodies contain, the question of how much of ourselves might be written into the genes and the pathways of the brain. In a family full of women who seem to keep reliving the same stories, mental illness becomes a kind of inheritance, and the body – specifically the female body – becomes a kind of cage. There is a recurring theme of bright, promising young minds knocked off course by physical desires: sex beckons, and in conservative Latvian society, sex means marriage and childbirth, pregnancy after pregnancy colonising both body and mind.
The grandmother Anna once aspired to education and success, but a youthful infatuation leads to a life bearing children for a much older, jealously possessive husband; he insists that she keep her body covered from other gazes, and uses it as a vessel for labour in every sense of the word; when she isn't having babies, she spends each day carrying 40 buckets of water up a steep hill for the cows. Her fantasies of death are described as a ‘longing to leave the physical self’.
Again and again, the women of Baumane's family find themselves trapped at the intersection of their physical desires and the social structures in which they are expected to operate: there is the beautiful, hyper-intelligent, superior Linda who invents an engagement and is unable to function when the fantasy breaks down; there is Miranda, the aspiring artist who disappears into a cloud of heavily medicated detachment after being diagnosed with postpartum depression; there is Signe Baumane herself, pressured into marriage by an accidental pregnancy. The film might suggest that her struggles with mental illness are a genetic inheritance, but it's hard not to conclude that the condition of being a woman in a repressive society is every bit as relevant as who your grandmother was. In her fascination with brain structures and genes, Baumane's film explores the biological history of how minds work, but she knows, too, that physical selves cannot be separated out from the socio-economic and cultural histories that they must live through.
Written by Shona McCombes
Rocks in My Pockets screened at CCA and Filmhouse as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival. Check out the rest of our Film Programme here, including details of our ninth International Film Awards ceremony, which takes place on Thu 29 Oct.