Drawing the Twisted Tree, by Aaron Pinkston
There has been a developing trend in which films with particularly serious subjects use animation in order to distance the viewer – and filmmakers – from tragedy or soften the blow. This in no ways cheapens the subject matter (at least, it shouldn’t, when done well). Recent films like Waltz with Bashir and The Missing Picture have shown us the effects of war, death, trauma, and genocide with shock and art. Latvian artist and animator Signe Baumane’s Rocks in My Pockets is a new entry, taking a personal look at mental illness through the animated stories of her family.
Rocks in My Pockets doesn’t disguise itself with its use of animation. Within the first two minutes (perhaps the harshest two minutes of the entire film), Baumane, in graphic detail, accounts for the inconsiderate side effects of hanging oneself. She supposes that if she ever decides to hang herself, she would prepare by wearing an adult diaper. This slightly tongue-in-cheek-but-direct tone of voice is found throughout Rocks in My Pockets, which plays like an audio-book narration over the animated story. Baumane looks to her family history in order to understand her own long struggle with depression and mental illness. This is a serious discussion, for sure, and the story becomes more heartbreaking as it goes on, but there is just enough humor and whimsy to be entertaining — I doubt this is the filmmaker’s major concern, but it obviously seems to be one of them.
Though she isn’t the most satisfying narrator, with her thick Eastern European accent creating some odd speech patterns, Baumane constructs a good story. The film’s narrative travels through her history to highlight five female family members, starts with her Grandmother Anna, who died among cloudy circumstances. Baumane’s biggest strength is her ability to blend her personal detail with historical context — her home country of Latvia plays a major part in this tale and she offers many thoughts on its social stances on gender, family, art, and mental illness. Because we don’t hear characters speak for themselves, it would have been easy to feel distanced from them, but they are incredibly well realized and Baumane gives their thoughts and struggles appropriate weight in her narration.
The first, and most prominent, story in the film is of Anna, Baumane’s grandmother, a woman equally ignored and controlled by her older, politically active husband. Anna’s heart gave out in her sleep despite being known as a strong woman who birthed eight children and managed her household without difficulty. As part of the story, Baumane “interviews” her aunts and uncles, with rumors of empty medicine bottles and theories of exhaustion swirling. Throughout her stories, she pays respect but isn’t afraid to criticize the family members and social structures who minimize or contribute to the serious strain of illness in the women of her family. In all, it is a full and vibrant portrait of three generations.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot to say about the animation of Rock in My Pockets. Still, I don’t know if there would be a better way to make this film. Whenever I watch an animated film, especially one made for adults, I always ask if the story warrants animation. This is a case of the inverse — the animation allows Baumane to be creative while talking about complex emotions in a way that doesn’t distract from the message. Rocks in My Pockets could conceivably be audio-only without missing much, so I see the animation as a supplement to the story. Baumane has a simple, hand-drawn style, which pops more when she mixes the animated characters with real-life objects.
Toward the end of the film, Baumane takes a look at herself. Her story isn’t as complete and feels less like story altogether, but the first-hand knowledge of her own situation provides for the most riveting section of the film. Baumane’s descriptions of the psychological and physiological effects of her depressive episodes are among the most descriptive and honest accounts of mental illness I’ve heard. Anyone who has struggled with depression can find truth in Rocks in My Pockets. While the film doesn’t offer a lot of optimism in Baumane’s voice, her clarity can offer strength.