Saturday Cartoon: ‘Rocks in My Pockets’ Director Signe Baumane’s Haunting ‘Birth’

By  · Published on September 13th, 2014

Rocks in My Pockets is a rare commodity, a stellar example of something we rarely get to see: animation for adults. The film is a memoir, a family chronicle and a national history. Director Signe Baumane grew up in Soviet Latvia, one of an enormous brood of cousins whose grandparents lived through the tumultuous 1930s and 1940s, bracing for Communist and Fascist invasions and struggling to get by. More specifically, Rocks in My Pockets is a family history of depression. Beginning with her much-harried grandmother, Baumane traces emotional hardship and the manifestations of mental illness down through her own generation. More contemplative than sad, this shape-shifting odyssey of strength and weakness is an artistic achievement the like of which doesn’t come around very often.

But don’t take my word for it. I can offer you some proof of Baumane’s unique approach to visual storytelling in the form of a cartoon. Birth premiered at the Berlin Film Festival back in 2009. It’s the story of a young woman named Amina, pregnant at only 17 years old. She goes to the doctor alone and resists telling her mother. Seeking advice from her aunt and her friends, she builds up a great deal of anecdotal knowledge, some of it true and some of it almost mythologically distracting. She obsesses in particular with that monstrously vague word, “delivery.” This is a film about the state of the mind, pregnancy as a psychological process as well as a physical one.

It is darkly and brutally honest. Amina’s aunt explains that she felt like a vessel, used by her husband to produce a child only to be broken by the birth and then tossed aside. A friend is haunted by the umbilical cord of a baby she had to give up. The doctor is at once warm and cold, offering the palliative words of a bored professional. Amina’s mother still treats her like a child, that word itself rising to the air in bright red letters. Baumane, here as well as in Rocks in My Pockets, is committed to honesty over comfort. The lived experiences and fears of women matter more than society’s expectation of clean, uncomplicated joy in the creation of family. There is, notably, no speaking role for the biological father of this child. He is the silent image crafted by a young girl’s hopes, wonderful but also irrelevant.

Baumane animates these various fantasies and anxieties with an unusual, dreamlike sense of physical space and emotional logic. At the beginning Amina feels her bedroom closing in around her, a fright that becomes increasingly vivid on the screen. Yet not all of the symbols in this film are quite so instantly dramatic. The aunt’s use of the word “vessel” inspires a blunt visual metaphor. Her husband arrives on a ship, a pun that is then turned upside down when Baumane draws the aunt as a vase, just one on a shelf of many that he takes down and impregnates with a simple green seed. During the subsequent birth she falls to the floor and cracks open, a haunting conclusion to an intuitive stylistic gesture. The umbilical cord sequence is even more visceral, its undercurrent of malevolence placing Birth in dialogue with classic pregnancy horror films.

As for the baby, well, it suffices to say that Baumane is not one to allow her audience a simple and easily forgettable resolution. While there is no final genre shift into actual horror, the instantly talking infant brings a distinct disquiet. Demanding but calm and collected, there is a hint of destruction in Birth’s final moments. Babies, and for that matter families, do not tie everything into a nice neat bow of narrative inevitability. The greens, yellows and purples of these scenes set one slightly off ease, and for good reason. Baumane’s work is about portraying, questioning and complicating psychology. She does not make art to simply solve it.

Rocks in My Pockets is currently playing in New York City and Los Angeles.