For some, it feels like a brick pressing down on your chest while you’re trying to move through water. For others, it’s that achy, sedated feeling that settles into your limbs and muffles your thoughts and heartbeat. For Signe Baumane, depression feels like the prick of a needle just below the heart.
Baumane is a Latvian artist and filmmaker who weaves her family history of mental illness into the political history of Eastern Europe in “Rocks in My Pockets.” Beginning with the premature death of her paternal grandmother, Baumane unravels the genealogical thread that pulled her and so many women in her extended family down into the depths of suicidal depression. The animated film features stop motion, papier mache and simple illustrations, which, when paired with Baumane’s sing-songy, heavily accented narration, give the film the feel of a children’s tale — think Tomie dePaola’s “Strega Nona”. While the presentation is light-hearted, the subject matter is decidedly adult. Baumane lets all the skeletons out of her family’s closet in her caustically witty and revealingly melancholic memoir.
The story starts in 1920s Latvia, where a young, educated and beautiful young woman named Anna — Baumane’s grandmother — marries a much older man. He takes her to the countryside to live like a peasant and bear his eight children — nothing at all like the upwardly mobile life for which she thought she had signed up. Isolated and increasingly reclusive, she covers up her beauty with baggy clothes to pacify her husband’s jealousy. She carries 40 heavy buckets of water up the hill from the river each day. She finds inventive ways to keep her children from starving. At the age of 50, she is dead. But how?
Baumane asks her aunts and uncles, but their answers are evasive: She died in her sleep, her heart stopped, she took too much medicine, or she was just worn out. Nobody mentions the times the neighbors found her floundering in the river — mid-suicide attempt — only to drag her out and send her back home. Denial and euphemisms leave gaps in the true story of Anna’s death — gaps that Baumane fills in with her colorful account of the subsequent suicides of her female cousins, as well as her own suicide attempt, and a scathing critique of Soviet psychiatry.
Whether or not the men in her family suffered from mental illness, Baumane doesn’t mention. The focus on her female kin gives the film a markedly feminist tone. It explains how — even without a genetic predisposition towards depression — some women see suicide as an escape from the confines of womanhood and as a release from the subjugating nature of gender expectations. Although lacking in scientific support, the film does an excellent job explaining the physical and mental complexities of depression, as well as the horrifying and dismissive methods previously used to treat the illness.
While not especially beautiful, Baumane’s animation, inspired by Jan Svankmajer and Bill Plympton, seems a fitting medium to tell her story. The dream-like aesthetic parallels the disconnect between her characters’ seemingly promising outer worlds and their painfully haunted inner worlds. It holds the audience at a safe enough distance from the subject matter to keep the viewing experience from becoming too unsettling.
And that’s because “Rocks in My Pockets” is not meant to shock viewers. It neither fetishizes nor romanticizes suicide; it offers neither condemnation nor justification. Baumane is sympathetic toward her characters, but in the end, she refuses to take the same path as them. Instead, she pulls the pin out from under her heart and uses it to pop the bubble of mystery surrounding mental illness.
“Rocks in my Pockets” is the Latvian entry for Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It opens at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco on Friday.