The imaginative and highly personal animated memoir “Rocks in My Pockets” marks a strong feature debut for Latvia-born, New York-based animator Signe Baumane, an idiosyncratic talent who dubs her four-year labor of love “a funny film about depression.” Narrated in her own charmingly accented English, the helmer uses irony and humor to talk about serious matters as she reveals long-hidden family secrets and provides a mini-history of 20th-century Latvia.
Partially funded on Kickstarter, “Rocks” world preemed at Karlovy Vary in July, where it was feted for its wit, insight and originality, and received the international critics’ prize. It began a run at New York’s IFC Center on Sept. 5, and opens in Laemmle theaters in Los Angeles on Sept. 12 . A national release via Zeitgeist Films will follow. She narrated a Latvian version with Russian subtitles that launched in Riga in August.
Born in 1964, Baumane earned a cult reputation — and numerous prizes — for frank, animated shorts on topics such as sex, pregnancy and dentists. “I often address difficult, uncomfortable subjects in my films, because I believe in confronting the things that bother me head-on,” Baumane says. In “Rocks,” she digs around her family tree to find the root of her depressive thoughts.
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Baumane came to animation indirectly. After completing a degree in philosophy from Moscow State U., she took an entry-level job at Dauka Animation Studio, but notes, “As an educated philosopher whose training concentrated on formulating opinions and talking, I made a really bad cel painter.”
Still, those around her recognized her talent and artistic sensibilities. In 1991, she received an opportunity to direct her first short toon, “The Witch and the Cow.” She also broadened her skill set, working as a freelance designer with publishing houses in Moscow and Riga, illustrating several children’s books and creating sets for a puppet theater. In 1993, she received another grant to make “Tiny Shoes,” a fairy tale about a young woman who dreams of marrying a prince, but instead has to live with a dragon. Film festivals recognized it as a bold feminist statement.
After completing three shorts in Latvia, Baumane came to the U.S. on a tourist visa in 1995, driven by the desire to explore her potential in a new environment. She recalls, “I knew one person in New York (my Russian ex), and I had $300 when I arrived. No one expected me nor wanted my services.” Just as she was about to return to Latvia, she met acclaimed American animator Bill Plympton, who offered her a job … as a cel painter.
By 1997, Baumane had earned a green card and enough money to fund her first short on American soil, “Love Story.” Through her dozen American shorts, she has honed a unique storytelling style, one that is direct, personal and unflinching. She works in a hand-drawn, stop-motion style in which the influences of Eastern European artists such as Lithuanian-Polish illustrator Stasys Eidrigevicius and Czech animator Jan Svankmajer are easy to spot.
But her made-in-New York films boast a new, specifically American sensibility with accessible storylines, developed gags and outrageous humor. She credits Plympton’s work for giving her permission to be funny and silly, for teaching her how to make films cheaply — and for her becoming an excellent cel painter. “Except,” she notes, “this skill, in 2014, is obsolete.”