"I think about sex every nine seconds and every 12 seconds I think about killing myself." That was Signe Baumane's response when I emailed asking for an interview, showing me that self-awareness comes when you least expect it.
I came across Signe's series of animated shorts Teat Beat of Sex and felt like she had dived into my brain and fished out every thought I've ever had about sex, then drawn it. Then I realized she had an animated feature coming out—Rocks in My Pockets.It is a retelling of Signe's family history of depression and it provided me with the perfect excuse to get in touch. Still, I never thought a random Latvian-born, New York–based animator would sum up my psyche with one simple sentence.
I too think about sex and dying constantly and alternately. In fact, now I that I think about it, I'd find it weird if you didn't—what else is there to worry about other than life and death? I spoke to Signe about all that and Sex and the City.
VICE: Rocks in My Pockets is a film about mental illness but it's also about family and the importance of knowing yourself and your history. You did that by exposing your own family history—how did your family react to that?
Signe Baumane: They were upset—I'm actually pretty sure they still are. When the film premiered in Latvia in August, 600 people came to the premiere and 60 of them were my relatives. The younger generation were like, Oh my God we finally understand ourselves. The rest of them weren't as impressed with me outing our family's dirty laundry.
On the other hand, everyone else who was at the premiere and did not share my genes came and said to me, "It's like you are telling my story—that's my family." Every single family has been through cases of mental illness.
The only reason my family feels like they are so special, so unique, is because they don't talk to other people about any of it.
To me it feels like it doesn't really make a difference whether those women in the film suffering from mental disorders were relatives or not. What seems to connect their stories for me is a kind of suppression of their feelings or desires.
I think that genetic makeup can be partly blamed for mental illnesses but you are also right. I find it interesting that only one of these women was able to escape the doom of madness: me. That's partly because I'm educated in a certain way—I studied philosophy, so I was able to analyze myself enough to figure out where I am and where I'm going.
So it definitely has to do with circumstances. I don't think that there is a gene of depression—I believe that there is a makeup of mental fragility that makes us who we are. Like an artist's mind is sensitive; it's able to see the world in a very unique way. When that kind of mind is trapped in a jail of society's expectations or if you yourself say for example, "This man treats me like shit, but I'm going to bear it out because I married him," somehow your mind will break.
But I don't really know what it is that breaks people. My story is asking questions rather than answering them. I'm just an artist.
That worry about what the neighbors will think, what people will say, is often found in closed societies. Growing up in Greece—even in the early 00s—I definitely felt that.
I grew up in that too. I think that society puts a lot of pressure on individuals, and not every individual can sustain that pressure.
Are all the stories in Rocks in My Pockets real?
I dramatized and stylized parts of the story to make it more engaging but the basic facts are true. It is true that my grandmother died under mysterious circumstances that my family would not talk about. And that I have three cousins who committed suicide. It's also a fact that I tried to commit suicide when I was 18.
What was it that made you decide to made this story into an animated feature film?
Telling that amount of history in a live action film is nearly impossible. Showing how a person feels from inside, how depression works from inside, is also nearly impossible in live action.
Do you remember that film A Beautiful Mind about the mathematician who went crazy? To depict his state of mind, they used blurry spinning images. This is all the language you have in live action. In animation it's different; you can just walk into a person's mind and you can show everything going on in there. In animation you're free to do anything you want.
And what really bums me out is that animation is misunderstood as a medium for children; this makes me really upset. Animation has been around for ages, it was the first moving images. Then sometime around the 1920s, it was hijacked by children.
How did you settle on the theme of depression?
As I wrote in my email, I have obsessive thoughts—every nine seconds I think about sex, and every 12 seconds I think about killing myself. I had already explored my obsessive thoughts about sex by making quite a few films about it—like the Teat Beat of Sex series.
So then I thought, Hey, how about looking at this other train of thought—the one about killing myself?
You also did the voiceover for both Teat Beat of Sex and Rocks In My Pockets. Hearing your stories in your voice—in your accent too—makes it all so personal. Talking to you makes me feel like I'm in one of your films.
For many years I believed that animation was best at expressing complex ideas without any words, and so I made a lot of films that had no voice over. But apart from a few, those films were not very popular. Then I made Teat Beat and Birth and they were insanely popular. I guess it's easier for people to relate this way.
Also my voice is very specific; my accent is very Latvian. When I was making the film a lot of people said I should hire an actress. I'm sure an actress could nail my accent too, but it's my story. If you take away that emotional impact then it's not the same.
You said you think about sex every nine seconds—that's pretty much how my brain works too. AndTeat Beat was how I found out about you; I watched Lizard and thought, Finally, here's someone nailing how women think about sex. Or at least how I think about sex. I'm talking about the constant confusion between looking for dick and looking for "the prince." Talking about sperm with your girlfriends and at the same time dreaming about marrying every guy you kiss. I wonder how the series was received.
The sad truth is that if a man makes films about sex, he's a filmmaker. If a woman makes films about sex, she's a freaking sex maniac. Like, whatever!
I make films the way I want to make them and never think about branding but when in Latvia, it turns out my label—my brand—is that of a provocateur. I'm not provocative at all, I just make films. Being provocative is just a byproduct of the particular society that is apparently not ready for these ideas yet.
For example, I started making the Teat Beat of Sexfilms in 2007. It was the time of Happy Tree Friends and this producer Pier Poire approached me looking to make something opposite to the violence that seemed trendy at that point. So he put some money in TB, which I had already started, and we tried to sell them as episodes. This popular short films website said they couldn't host most of the episodes because "according to our guidelines we can feature male genitalia but not female genitalia, and all your episodes feature female genitalia heavily."
In 2009, I just said "fuck that" and put them online for free. We made 15 episodes and our poor producer never got a penny back. And I think that was because the work was about sex from a woman's point of view. People are not ready for it.
Do you think that is still the case? To me it feels like in the past couple of years there's a lot of attention on how women view sex. I hear myself saying that now, but it might even have been the influence of things like Sex and the City on my generation of women.
You know what? I moved to New York in 1995 and women here dressed a certain way and behaved a certain way—they dressed in a more practical way because in New York you have to cover long distances and it was a generally known thing that New York women would not have sex on the first date. Since I was European, I had more men hit on me because they thought European women were easier. Which was true. If I liked a guy then I didn't see why I shouldn't sleep with him on the first date. But American women were harder to get—which, you know, hats off to them.
But all of a sudden around the early 00s everything changed. Suddenly, women started walking around the streets of New York in short skirts and high heels, getting drunk in bars and sleeping with people on the first date, and I wondered what was going on. Then I heard about Sex in the City and was like, "fuck."Then again, when I was growing up, women were always seen and regarding each other as competitors. We never gave 100 percent of ourselves to other women because what we knew was that at any moment your best friend could steal your man. It happened to me, and I did it to other women.
But it seems like that has changed now—women seem to have groups of friends and to think more collectively. If Sex and the City had anything to do with it even in the smallest way, then that's great. We need female support. Who else is going to support us?
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