Animating the Unspeakable

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An Interview with Animator Signe Baumane

Signe Baumane is a Latvian animatorliving and working in New York. Her latest film, an animated memoir called Rocks in My Pockets (2015), is a tragi-comedy about her family history of depression. Narrated by Baumane herself, the film unfolds as an essay read aloud in manic, often carnivalesque tones, accompanied by surreal imagery meant to approximate an invisible landscape of the mind. In one memorable scene, her mother walks, like a demented Snow White, through the deep forest of her consciousness, greeting the many little woodland monsters—depression spirits—that accompany her wherever she goes. In these moments, animation serves not to supplant or overpower Baumane’s spoken narration, but to reveal the strange beauty and inherent comedy of language often used to describe mental illness (“I felt haunted by myself”). Though it is her first feature-length animation, Rocks in My Pockets is not Signe Baumane’s first crack at animating the unspeakable. Her web series, The Teat Beat of Sex (2010) is a series of short vignettes about the hang-ups and confusions of sexual intimacy. As a darker twin of cool girl Teat Beat, Rocks in My Pockets stands as Baumane’s latest achievement in using the power of moving images to reinvigorate discussions of taboo subjects. 

Baumane’s characters look a bit like weird cousins of the Simpsons. Their protruding mouths have a Matt Groening duck-bill quality, and their eyes are all wide, round, and frozen in a slightly spooked expression, even as the corners of their mouths turn upward into smiles. For years, Baumane worked for animator Bill Plympton, and his influence on Rocks in My Pockets can be felt both in its form and content: the jarring levity with which topics like death and suicide are discussed, and the way in which all her characters are shaded in pencil, by hand. These penciled shadings differ from frame to frame, causing characters to tremble with their own internal motion as colors move across their bodies in rapid, contained micro-animations. The look of these figures—loopy, comic, a little on-edge—is inextricable from Baumane’s commitment to creating a hybrid lexicon of words and images to signify gluey, inarticulable mid-states: despair that is also joy, pain that is also pleasure, sadness that, in its bleakness, becomes affirmative of “the crazy quest for sanity” that defines her characters’ lives. 

I met with Signe Baumane on a cold-ish Sunday at a tea place in Midtown Manhattan that had been remodeled since she had last been there (“It used to be twice this size! Everything gets smaller in this city!” she exclaimed as we sat down). In a corner of the shrunken establishment, we discussed the stigmas surrounding the animation genre, assault narratives in Fifty Shades of Grey, and the deductive genius of Dr. Dolittle. 

—Isabel Ortiz

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THE BELIEVER: Since its release earlier this year, Rocks in My Pockets has received a lot of acclaim from the film community—it was named a Critics’ Pick in The New York Times and has been extremely successful on the international film festival circuit. As a work of art with a strong advocacy component, how has the film been received by the mental health community, particularly doctors and patients dealing with depression? 

SIGNE BAUMANE: One thing that has surprised me is that after screenings, psychologists have come to me to say, this is a good film for us to show to our patients to start conversations. Usually when you enter therapy, therapists tend to contaminate you with their language. They say, “use this term for that thing.” And the film has none of that. It is told purely from a patient’s point of view. It describes the experience of depression in a raw, direct way and there is no medical language used. A woman emailed me after the screening, about something that I said in a Q & A about how we have to talk about this issue, and she said that hearing me say that gave her a sense of the validity of her feelings. She was seeing a therapist who said, “Oh, you shouldn’t talk about negative things. Those feelings have no value, and everyone should just focus on the future.” And watching my film gave her permission to talk about the past, and encouraged her to change her psychotherapist. Now, she says, she feels hopeful that she can resolve her own conflict. Like her, a lot of people have emailed me to say that they are depressed and often they feel desperately alone, and then they watch the film and they feel that they are not alone. Parents and partners also can gain a better understanding of how their loved ones feel. There was this young guy who came to me in L.A. and he said, “I broke off a relationship with my partner a year ago because I couldn’t understand, and now I see how she felt.” Because he watched this film, because they watched it together, he has a hope that they can actually talk and he might have a glimmer of understanding of what it feels like. 

BLVR: What first brought you to animation, particularly to using the medium to address issues that are difficult to discuss? 

SB: My sister is a veterinarian, and since early childhood she wanted to be an animal behaviorist. We were reading Dr. Dolittle, and she thought that animals definitely communicated, that there was this language they were using that we could not yet understand. And the fantasy of Dr. Dolittle has stayed with her for her whole life. Unfortunately there was no school that would teach animal behavior so she went into the closest field, veterinary school. She was always interested in how animals function, and how the body functions. What is the relationship between what you eat and how you look, and what is the outcome of these relations? 

The other book that influenced both of us is Sherlock Holmes, which is another fantasy that teaches you the way to deal with reality: to deduct. Sherlock Holmes teaches you to put together the signs. For example, I look at a person and I see their coat, their jacket, their handwriting, their iPhone, and I am able to deduct some details about who they are, what they wear, and what they do. And for many years I was fascinated with Sherlock Holmes. The series trained me to look at the world through these sharp, unforgiving eyes. So I guess these two books influenced my sister and me because those characters want to unravel the truth behind the surface. My sister tries to diagnose the animal—of course, the animal cannot speak!—in order to see how the symptoms add up to a disease that she can actually cure. 

And me, I guess I’m interested in these behind-the-surface feelings of the human condition, in my own way. I was always struck by the gap—at least in the books I was reading—between what people tell stories about and what I actually feel. Only now since I’ve been marketing the film and trying to get people to see it have I started thinking about that gap between fantasy and reality. It’s small peanuts compared to big Hollywood films, so I understand the difference. When I see all these people in line on Valentine’s Day for… the Grey Man… that Valentine’s movie, you know… 

BLVR: Fifty Shades of Grey? 

SB: Yes, Fifty Shades of Grey! What a horrible movie, it’s not a movie even, it’s a fantasy, and it’s not even just a stupid fantasy but a dangerous fantasy. Rocks in My Pockets, if you actually watch it, could help you to understand yourself and understand the world. It’s engaging and entertaining but it also gives you a point of view and it may actually decrease your suffering. A film like Fifty Shades of Grey is a pure fantasy that, if anything, is going to enforce the message that abusive relationships—especially with wealthy men—are okay. You may not recognize an abusive relationship because in Fifty Shades of Grey everything ended up okay. But nobody wants to see the truth. Everybody wants to have the fantasy. So now, when I look back, of course, duh, the books I was reading in my childhood were selling some sort of fantasy as well. Most stories are not going to tell the deep suffering of every day. Few writers will write, “He suffered for five days, and this is how each day went.” Whereas when I suffered for five days, each day felt like five years, right? No book prepared me for the suffering I would experience in life because the word “suffering” does not even describe what the suffering is. No story is going to tell you that, and no words can tell you that. 

BLVR: You seem to react against the word “fantasy,” but how do you reconcile your commitment to emotional realism with the inherent fantasy of the animation genre? Aren’t cartoons necessarily fantastical, made-up, unreal? 

SB: The fantastical images in my work are descriptive in a different way—a metaphorical way—that removes you from reality. Then, this visually removed point of view allows you to deal with a very heavy subject. The one thing that makes Rocks in My Pockets so much fun is that it’s animated, and that it does remove you from a visual reality—if it was live action, you wouldn’t be able to see through the person’s mind. But animation takes a step away. It creates a very stylized landscape, but at the same time it is the form that is best able to address the reality of being alive and being in pain. 

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Stasys Eidrigevičus, Illustration from “Tales of Fairies,” 2008

BLVR: Rocks in My Pockets and Teat Beat of Sex both rely heavily on spoken narrations to tell their stories. Often, it seems like the animated images align perfectly with the words uttered, like diagrams or textbook illustrations. Other times, the images seem to come unstuck from the words, as if existing on a separate plane of meaning. How do you intend for words to interact with and tense against the images of your films? 

SB: In my opinion, animation is best when it communicates without words, because it is the perfect medium through which to make shortcuts to meaning. When actors are not talking, just acting out, it looks kind of weird. But in animation, mime is constant, and you accept it. My first film, The Witch and the Cow (1991) had no words. The second film I made, The Tiny Shoes (1993), was based on a fairy tale that I wrote, and it was about a young girl who wants to marry a prince but gets a dragon instead. This one was dialogue driven. I didn’t make films with constant narration, though, until Teat Beat of Sex, which had such a huge and amazing success that I thought, “Well, maybe I am wrong to dismiss words, clearly there is something about language and the way I interpret the language that makes people watch.” When I do only images, people don’t connect with the images because the images are too weird to understand. But when I explain the weird images with straight words, then all of a sudden there is a tension between the two that the audience wants to see. 

The tension between the words and the image comes from the Eastern European tradition of illustration. And the most spectacular example, the one who influenced me the most, is Stasys Eidrigevičus. He is a Lithuanian-Polish illustrator who illustrates very famous Eastern European folktales. And I don’t read Polish or Lithuanian, but I know the folktales, so when I looked at his pictures I saw that they always went beyond mere illustration, that with pictures he added meaning to the text. For example, when I made Birth (2011) I first wrote down the scenes and we recorded them with actors. Then I sat down and said, “Okay, so when this woman says, ‘The man used me as a vessel,’ what does that mean?” And based on that question, I was going to determine how she looked, what her actions would be, and my images would interpret that. Basically, I try to ask, “What is the hidden meaning behind the words?” And sometimes the images match the text perfectly and sometimes they go apart, and as an audience you are able to stay with the story because the voiceover, the narration tells you what is happening. 

BLVR: Before becoming an animator, you received a B.A. in Philosophy at Moscow University. What made you go from philosophy to animation? Did you always know that you wanted to become an animator eventually? 

SB: No, not at all. I always knew that I wanted to be a writer. I think I was six or seven when I learned how to read, and I still remember it. My mom and my sister, they were cooking together and they were showing me what each letter meant. And for days I was grating my brain against this—I would see separate letters, but they would not add up to the words and it was like an alien language, where I could recognize each letter but I could not put them together. One morning, it was a sunny morning, and the light was coming into my room. I am very stubborn, I was still sitting there in my room breaking my brain against the page, and then all of a sudden the word came popping out to me, and everything that was alien, those scribbles around the word that looked like dragon nail scratches, all of a sudden they had a meaning! And I still remember the feeling, how the words jumped at me and I read the first sentence, and I screamed and I ran to my mom and my sister and said, “I know how to read!” And they said, “Big deal, everybody knows how to read.” And I sat at home for the whole day and I finished reading this book, and the moment I finished I said, “I know what I want to be. I want to be a writer.”  

So, I wanted to be a writer, and at age six when you say you want to be a writer everybody laughs at you and says, “Well, you have to have life experience.” And I was like, “Okay,” so I stopped talking about it. And I was published for the first time when I was fourteen and, you know, Latvia is a small country so you write something worthwhile and they publish it, no problem. But still, I knew that that you don’t study to be a writer, so I decided to study philosophy. It was sort of an accidental choice. I had no intent to study philosophy, really, and once I studied philosophy, it was in Russia, so I was working in Russian and I lost my connection with the Latvian language. I couldn’t write in Russian because I’m not a native speaker. And so for a while I lost my connection to any language. While I was graduating, I was getting ready to come back to Latvia to teach philosophy, but I didn’t want to do that. My friend said, “I’ve seen your doodles during lecture and I want to see them move. Why don’t you go into animation?” And I said, “Sounds better than teaching philosophy.” So I went to animation school. 

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Stasys Eidrigevičus, “A Newspaper Dress,” 2008

BLVR: Your voiceover is such a distinctive part of your work. Can you talk a bit about the character behind your voice, and your choice to use it? 

SB: Like every normal person, I hate my voice. And I am not the only one who hates my voice. The voiceover gets a lot of strong reactions. A lot of people love it, and a few people truly hate it and pronounce the film unwatchable because of my Latvian accent. But it also has a certain level of theatricality, and everything is important for this manic character. She is not mentally well, and it is really important for her to tell the story, and the stakes are very high at every moment. So she doesn’t let you go; it’s very intense. And if you can’t bear this intensity, if you never encountered that intensity, if you shirk that intensity, you are not going to be able to watch the film. From day one of the film, there was this alarm going off in my head, like, “Oh don’t use your voice, use a famous actor, use this or that.” And I was probably stubborn and delusional to decide to go ahead and do the voice, but I don’t know—you like it, you hate it, that’s how it works. 

BLVR: Are there other animators—particularly women animators—that influence your work? 

SB: What inspires me is when I see something and I say, “I can do that too.” Bill Plympton showed me how to make animation cheap and fast. And Jan Svankmajer’s images are very accessible. What I really like about him is that he uses surreal images to describe everyday encounters, and those images are unexpected and kind of funny. And, because he is from Eastern Europe, I feel an affinity with him. We come from the same culture. With Bill Plympton, I wouldn’t say we come from the same culture. I live here now, and I’ve lived here for twenty-five years, but we still do not quite share the same culture. And so I consider my work a marriage of the two, with an Eastern European surrealism being pollinated by an American sense of humor. 

When I see work like the British animator Joanna Quinn’s, I look at it and I say, “It’s so amazing, I don’t have the skills! I will never have them, I will never be able to do that.” You know the Charmin bear, those toilet paper commercials? She animated those, but she also made a lot of animated short films and I think one of them won an Oscar. She is so skilled in her craft that though I admire her I could never say that she influenced me. I can’t even say that she inspired me because I am not on the level.

I try not to think of myself as a woman filmmaker. I don’t look for women influences. I have noticed in the past few years that there is a certain ceiling that a woman filmmaker can reach. I don’t believe that it’s sexism per se, but there are certain expectations in the industry about what films should be, how they should be made, what stories they should tell, and it’s a habit, it’s a tradition. When industry people see something different they don’t know what to do with it, so filmmakers who make films about women, they kind of fall through the cracks. If a woman filmmaker makes film about war, like [Kathryn] Bigelow, they say “Okay, this is a war film, it has ninety percent men in it, we know what to do with it.” But then she still gets attacked for not doing it properly. Even though American Sniper—as a war story that also had to be simplified in certain ways—had similar problems to The Hurt Locker, Bigelow was not forgiven because she was a woman, while with American Sniper it was okay. 

Even though it bothers me I don’t want to dwell on the sex and gender thing. I have decided that I want animation to be taken seriously; that is the goal of my life. I believe that animation is a very important medium to tell stories, not just for kids but for adults. My favorite animated films are films that tell amazing stories, like, for example, Persepolis. And my other favorite animated story is Waltz with Bashir. I just saw a Korean animated feature film called The Fake. You probably have never heard of it, but I’m telling you, when I saw it I said, “This is the most amazing film I’ve seen since Waltz with Bashir. It should be considered among those gods of animation.” And it is not, I don’t know why. It won’t get press because it is animated, and that is unfair. 

BLVR: What’s next? 

SB: This marketing and distribution thing is taking a lot of time. But I am burning, I am itching, I am like a horse that spends the winter inside the stable. And I can feel that spring is coming and I am kicking the walls. I’m ready to go. But unfortunately I also believe that it’s irresponsible to leave the film unattended. There are so many films in the world that have been made and the makers just desert them at the end. They make the film and then they leave it, like a beached whale. Hundreds, if not thousands of films of this budget end up like that. I’m not going to desert Rocks in My Pockets just because I want to make another film. But I said to myself, by summer I have to start working on something new. Because I made all these sex films, and then I made a film about depression, in the next film I want to combine them, sex and depression. And so I want to make a film about marriage.

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The Witch and the Cow on Vimeo.

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Isabel Ortiz is a writer living in Queens. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books and on Feministing.com.