Boasting a narrative of extraordinary complexity and density, stuffed with irony, humor and tales-within-tales, the imaginative animated memoir “Rocks in My Pockets” merges a mini-history of 20th-century Latvia with that of helmer Signe Baumane and her forebears. Along the way, it provides a fascinating and very personal look at mental illness, as well as familial and societal dictates and dynamics. Following the film’s world preem in competition at Karlovy Vary, boutique arthouse distributor Zeitgeist will bow this modern milestone in animated storytelling in New York and Los Angeles in September. Nationwide play will follow.
Inspired by animators such as Jan Svankmajer (for his surrealism) and Bill Plympton (for his silliness), Latvia-born, U.S.-based director Baumane employs a unique, beautifully textured combination of papier-mache stop-motion and classic hand-drawn animation for this feature debut, which required more than 30,000 drawings. Her colorful visuals are enhanced by passionate, stream-of-consciousness-like narration in her own heavily accented English.
Like many families, Baumane’s has its share of skeletons in the closet — secrets and disappointments hidden from outsiders and, indeed, from other family members. But her problems with depression impel her to investigate more thoroughly the DNA she inherited, despite resistance from her kinsmen.
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All trails (and tales) lead back to her grandmother Anna, whose legendary beauty and intelligence appear in the offspring of her eight children. But so, too, do Anna’s depressive tendencies and self-destructive acts. Although Baumane doesn’t make an issue of it, her descriptions of Anna’s much older husband, the entrepreneur Indoless (who, with his amazing history, deserves a feature of his own), match the classic symptoms of a manic-depressive with delusions of grandeur.
Unusually for the 1920s, Anna’s conservative Latvian family scrimped and saved to educate her, but didn’t support her when she abandoned her opportunities in order to marry Indoless. Always concerned about what the neighbors would say, they came from the “you’ve made your bed, now lie in it” school, where one must live with one’s choices no matter the personal cost.
When Indoless left Riga with Anna, installing her in an isolated farmhouse near a forest, their ever-growing family suffered through WWII and occupation by the Russians, Germans and Russians again. Over the years, Anna was the one who ensures their survival. As Baumane recounts the memories of Anna’s offspring regarding her near-superhuman abilities (hauling 40 buckets of water a day up a hill to supply the family and livestock), we see the cartoon Anna going about her chores, watched over by two spirits — one that lives in the river and one in the forest. The former represents the will to die, the latter the nourishing possibilities of the woods.
These spirits also appear in the stories of Baumane’s beautiful and talented female cousins who wind up in mental hospitals, overmedicated by the Soviet system (the practices of which come in for scathingly funny criticism). The spirits also fight over Baumane, but luckily, she finds the internal strength to defy both her genetic and societal heritage.
Like Baumane’s earlier shorts, the years-in-the-making “Rocks in My Pockets” is fiercely feminist. It opposes opportunity and responsibility, and questions why women should have to please people at the expense of their dreams. Some of the images, such as that of a woman trapped under a bell jar while her husband watches from outside, perfectly epitomize marriage as experienced by Anna and her female descendants. Meanwhile, apt turns of phrase in the spoken narration (e.g., “My mind feels like a badly wired building”) make mental illness seem less alien.
Unfolding at an almost breathless pace, the film boasts aces tech contributions across the board.