Rocks in My Pockets Dir. Signe Baumane

[Zeitgeist Films; 2014]

Styles: documentary, animation, biopic
Others: Truth Has Fallen, Is the Man Who is Tall Happy

Rocks in my Pockets — the enigmatic title of independent animator Signe Baumane’s first feature film evokes the playful act of skipping stones on a lake. Paper mache sets and charming character designs reminiscent of children’s book illustrations drawn by Tomi de Paola and Maurice Sendak seem to promise a lovely dreamlike adventure. The film is indeed a surrealistic swirl of images and events played out with both humor and wit, but we soon learn that the title relates to something far more sinister: the key ingredients that the narrator calculates are necessary to successfully drown oneself in a river, an act her grandmother Ana attempted to do on more than one occasion.

After World War II (one of many catastrophes that passes over this autobiographical film about Baumane and her family) theorist Theodore Adorno famously wrote, “No poetry after Auschwitz.” In saying this, he seems to question the role of art vis-à-vis human suffering: is art merely an amusement that distracts us from reality, or is it a way of life and a necessary expression of humanity?

For Signe Baumane’s grandmother, who raised her impoverished family during the war, the answer is the latter. Although art-making had no place in her day to day life of fending off starvation, she was nevertheless seen by her children as a creative spirit. As Signe’s father states, “She was too busy with eight children, two cows, a horse, killing and skinning a rabbit a day to be able to trifle with paintings and tapestries!” Instead, her poetry and her art was an attitude. Signe’s father asserts, “It’s the character, my dear! She had the eye, ear and sensitivity of an artist! You never walked with her in the blooming meadows of the summer solstice. She had a wild imagination. Colors, shapes and smells, made her very alive.”

However, in spite of surviving the war and her own mental illness for decades, Ana eventually succumbed to a premature death at the age of fifty, a passing shrouded with hints of suicide. Tragically, this death was followed by the psychological unraveling of three of Signe Baumane’s cousins — all of them young, intelligent women who were unable to hold up against societal expectations of women and the voice of their own internal demons.

As Signe retraces her family’s past in an attempt to understand her own depression, parallels emerge between herself and her grandmother. Both were bright young women who were excited about life before entering downward-spiraling marriages with ill-suited partners. Both were forced by their families to save face by persevering through those marriages to raise families of their own, and both were artists, each in her own way.

In light of her family history, Signe decides to takes an active approach to combating her depression through making art and establishing herself in a community. At the close of the film, she describes the experience of suddenly being hit with the insidious desire to end her life in the middle of a task as mundane as standing in line for groceries. It is when she forces herself to knock on a neighbor’s door to get outside of herself that she manages to chase away the specter of death. While making decorations for her neighbor’s party she tells us, “The sign I am cutting out is pretty meaningless on the scale of the solar system. Tomorrow it will be thrown out in the garbage and forgotten. But today it connects me with people.”

Rocks in my Pockets ends on this optimistic note. Through the film itself, the act of creation serves as a bridge to connect with others and catalyze a deeper understanding of human suffering. Contrary to Adorno’s claim, art might just be what saves us.

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