Latvia’s Angela Carter of animation — After tackling sex, pregnancy and violence with an outspoken honesty, Signe Baumane explores her own family’s history of mental illness in Rocks in my Pockets.

If her family hadn’t bribed medical officials, Signe Baumane could have been stuck in Soviet mental hospitals indefinitely. While studying at Moscow State University in the 1980s, Baumane was locked away for four months after admitting to dark obsessive thoughts following the birth of her son and a teenage suicide attempt to a local psychiatrist. Without her family’s intervention her official diagnosis of schizophrenia wouldn’t have been downgraded to the less severe manic-depression and she could have become trapped in the Soviet mental health system.

Almost two decades later, the Latvian animator has explored her own and her family’s history of mental illness in the remarkable Rocks in my Pockets, which is being screened at London’s ICA on Sunday August 23 at 4pm by Bechdel Test Fest and Little White Lies magazine.

Signe Baumane could very well be the Angela Carter of animation. Her raucous and outrageously funny short films like Love Story, Five Fucking Fables and the Teat Beat of Sex series have always confronted the topics that interest her head-on: sex, violence, power, womanhood and relationships between men and women.

Baumane’s debut feature Rocks in my Pockets digs deep into her own struggles with depression and madness with the same brutal honesty, a journey that takes her back to the 1920s Latvia of her grandmother. Another bold feminist statement, it’s a hilarious and thought-provoking perspective on a family story that is intertwined with Latvia’s own history.

What first attracted you to animation?
I got into animation by chance. After studying Philosophy for five years at Moscow State University I was supposed to become either a professor at a Latvian University or join the brainwashing machine of the Communist Party (I graduated when Latvia was still part of Soviet Union). Both options frightened me. Then a friend said she loved my doodles on my lecture notebooks (instead of writing down Dialectal Materialism or Scientific Communism nonsense I was drawing in the notebooks) and suggested I go into animation. I didn’t know anything about animation but it sounded better than all the other options.

When I started to organise my doodles into storyboards I was completely hooked. It was like LOVE at the first sight. The thing that really grabbed me was the deep focus required to make storyboards and how it allowed me to focus on imaginary things for 8 -12 hours. In all my previous life I was never able to hold my focus on any occupation other than sex or rigorous physical exercise for longer than 15 minutes.

The other thing that hooked me was capacity of animation to make ANYTHING happen. It was like having a magic wand in my hands. Want a bird fly out of a kettle? Tzing! there is a bird flying out of the tea kettle! As time went by and I grew up, of course my storyboards got more complicated than just birds flying out of a tea kettle, but my fascination with animation’s magic is still there.

“Animation is an ideal medium – you can turn any thought or feeling into a character and a make serious subject funny.”

How does animation allow you to tell stories that would be impossible in other mediums?
Since nothing is impossible in animation… Wait, let me reword this: since the only limit in animation is your level of skill, you can tell any story you want or are able to. Some animators, like Bill Plympton, use realistic drawing styles to confront stereotypes with unexpected twists and milk the comedy moments (25 Ways to Quit SmokingHow to Kiss, etc.).

Others, like Don Hertzfeldt, use a high level of stylisation (stick figures!) to tell complex stories of surreal violence (Billy’s Balloon) or unraveling of the mind (Rejected, Everything Will Be OK) or to deliver a commentary of contemporary affairs (World of Tomorrow). Or others, like Miyazaki, set their characters in fantastical worlds where they interact with fantastical creatures (Spirited Away etc).

But then, there is another way to use animation – for personal stories. Like Waltz With Bashir, Persepolis and to some extent Sita Sings the Blues. Those films use animation to tell stories based on real life but they are not entirely documentaries.

I am interested in expressing the inner world of a human being, making an account of thoughts and feelings that are not normally presented in a social context. I’m interested in observing and recording what happens when the inner world is confronted with the outside world and its expectations. Animation is an ideal medium for that – you can turn any thought or feeling into a character and a make serious subject funny.

“Hardcore film festival fans can stomach all kinds of weird shit. Nothing seemed too personal or too weird for my audience.”

Your Teat Beat of Sex shorts are brutally honest. Have you always felt so confident expressing yourself on film? Is there anything personal you would be uncomfortable sharing in your work?
As a student of Philosophy I was trained to form opinions quickly, and to form them independently from the mainstream way of thinking. I was also trained to question anything that was presented to me. Over the years I noticed the discrepancy between the socially popular things (shaven pussies are in fashion!) and the practical reality of it (we need pubic hair for many reasons). When I pointed out to those discrepancies, my opinion was met with laughter, as if it was a comedy act. Teat Beat of Sex is pointing at the basic truths of a woman’s side of sex matters but inexplicably, the episodes are regarded as just a comedy. My conclusion: people don’t like truth. They pay pretty penny not to hear or see it. When confronted with truth, they laugh it off.

As to being confident expressing sex matters and myself on film – I made my first sex film Love Story in 1998 and when it was accepted at Göteborg Film Festival I was frightened to present it. But the screening went well and then I made more sex films, one of them with a title Five Fucking Fables.

As a short film-maker your audience is small but also very sophisticated – only hardcore film festival fans go to see short film programs. And they can stomach all kinds of weird shit. So I got accustomed to friendly reception for my weird shorts. And nothing seemed too personal or too weird for my audience. The only bad thing that happened – I got a reputation of being a “sex animator”, but I corrected that by making films on other subjects – dentists, veterinarians, pregnancy and depression.

As to if there is anything personal I’d be too uncomfortable sharing in my work – an artist is like a floating iceberg – in her work you see only the small tip of what/who she is and what she can do (her potential). If you think that Teat Beat of Sex is very personal and revelatory, then you haven’t seen the rest of the iceberg below the surface. And you may never see it. Because some things are just too personal and too deep below to share.

Could you talk about the experience of exploring yours and your family’s history of mental illness on film? Was it a challenging or positive experience?
It’s one thing to reveal my own secrets and entirely other to tell other people’s secrets. Some members of my extended family are still mad at me for making Rocks In My Pockets. It really hurts – I truly love my family and wish no harm. But when I started making the film I believed (delusionally) that it would never be seen outside the small and confined English-speaking festival circle.

So I made the film without any self-censorship, I told the story the way I understood it, the way I wanted to tell it. At some point we had to run a Kickstarter campaign and the film’s supporters from Latvia demanded to see the film in Latvian. Before long I was talking to National Film Center of Latvia, before long we had a Latvian co-producer Roberts Vinovskis (Locomotive Productions) and before long I was in Latvia recording the film in Latvian.

Then Latvia selected Rocks In My Pockets as the country’s official entry to the 2014 Oscars and it was written about quite a lot in the Latvian press. There was no escape – my family members found out about the film and not all of them liked that I reveled their secrets. But the film became part of a conversation about mental illness in Latvia, a conversation the country hadn’t had before (and Latvia has had quite high suicide rates). I received a lot of thank you notes from latvians experiencing depression or fear of being stigmatized because of their depression.

So, to answer your question if this was a challenging or a positive experience: on one hand I am still worried about being ostracised from my family because I had made the film, on the other – I am thrilled that the film is helping people to be more open about their mental condition and perhaps that is helping them to manage the pain they go through. It is also helping people who have never experienced depression to understand it better.

Please note, I didn’t make the film to ‘cure’ myself, or to feel better myself. I make films for an audience – to entertain, to enthrall them, to shake them up and give a new perspective on themselves and world.

Catch Signe Baumane’s Rocks in my Pockets at London’s ICA on Sunday August 23 at 4pm, presented by The Bechdel Test Fest and Little White Lies magazine. Grab tickets here or join the Facebook event here.