The Latvian-born animation director Signe Baumane, New York-based since 1995, is a tall woman with a somewhat sad smile – visually a bit reminiscent of the nervous and aristocratic women painted by Modigliani. She is easy to talk to and a good listener. We are sitting by a table in a café; the press preview of her first feature animation film ‘Rocks in My Pockets’ has just ended. After the film there was no applause. I have no idea why. Perhaps it’s just not the done thing at press-previews. Or perhaps because the film is not an ordinary one. ‘A funny film about depression,’ that’s the film’s tagline in the Latvian market. In the United States it’s ‘A crazy quest for sanity’. It is the personal story of Signe Baumane and her family. A family in which women for some reason tend to respond to the world in a hypersensitive way; sometimes they just cannot cope. They cannot cope at all. But then again – the world also seems to have huge demands on them, as was the case with Signe’s grandmother Anna who raised eight children in a house in the middle of a forest, without any special help from her elderly husband who had hid her away from the whole world because of his jealousy.
It is a world in which women subject themselves to the authority of the received opinion: ‘that’s the way it should be’, ‘what will other people think’, ‘don’t bring shame to the family’. And a world in which woman is still seen as something like a trophy. The film is also the story of a person who has inherited this painful, torturous sensitivity in her perception of the juxtaposition of ‘Others’ and the ‘Self’. Of someone who understands that hiding in your shell, shutting yourself off from the rest of the humankind because of something that some people call ‘depression’ and others describe by using much more horrific medical terms – it’s just wrong. That is not the way to deal with it.
Signe is dealing with it in her own way. She talks, jokes, smiles, travels, makes films (the ‘Rocks’ feature was preceded by 15 extremely original animated shorts). She raises funds for her films, works as a book illustrator and periodically publishes chapters from her novel about New York in Latvia. She also voiced the two versions of her new film, narrating both the English and Latvian text. ‘If you love animation, art, women, strange daring stories, Latvian accents, history, nature and adventure, this is a film for you!’ it says on the film’s page on Kickstarter, the charity internet platform where money for the final stages of work on the film was raised. It also said the following:
‘I am making this film because I find the fragility of our minds fascinating. Life is strange, unpredictable and I see the humour in it all. Yes, I almost broke down, but I came back to tell my story. I hope you'll laugh with me.’
And so the 90-minute film is completed. All 129 600 frames based on 23 000 drawings have been put together. The National Film Centre of Latvia, the Locomotive Studio, as well as a number of American foundations and organisations all contributed financially to the making of the film. The first screening took place in July 2014 at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival where the film won the Award of International Film Critics (FIPRESCI). ‘In addition to being a genealogy of depression, it is also a long history of a Latvian family that has survived through the turbulences of the early 20th century, three occupations, the Soviet era and now over two decades of freedom,’ that is how the film is described by culturologist and commentator for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Dmitri Volchek who was present at the premiere in the Czech Republic. By the time this interview is posted online, the film will have seen its Latvian premiere as well. And I sincerely hope that it will be received with a sea of applause by the audience, including the 60 members of Signe Baumane’s extended family who will attend the showing. Because it is a film about resistance, simple human resistance. And also about hope ‘we should never lose because it is not very good at orientating itself’. Please forgive me for quoting myself.
I would like to begin by going back in time. Why did you decide to study philosophy after school?
Each and every one of the most significant things in my life has happened by accident. Animation, philosophy… I have no idea why it happened the way it did. And now, looking back in hindsight, I think: Why, yes, surely that’s the way it was supposed to be. Sort of. But why did fortuity play such an important role here?
When I think about what I actually wanted to do with my life, the one story that springs to mind immediately is how I learnt to read. Incidentally, it was in Russian that I first started reading because I lived in Sakhalin at the time. I was explained what each of the letters meant. And so I spent my time trying and putting all these letters together but somehow I could not see the words behind the letters. And then suddenly the letters sort of opened in front of me and revealed the words. I remember it distinctly: it was around half past eleven in the morning; my mum was getting ready for work. She taught in the second shift; my sister also went to school in the second shift, and so I was left all alone at home. When they left, I was sitting at the table and reading this book as the sunlight gradually moved across the room. It must have been some sort of children’s book, something about bunnies and foxes or something. By the time I finished reading it, I had realised that I wanted to be a writer. I figured it out that somebody had written the book and that this person had entered my brain. Not only entered: he had started a real revolution in my brain. And I wanted to make a revolution in someone else’s brain. I wanted…
At this early stage?
Yes. Even then, aged 7, I already wanted to penetrate other people’s brain. Oh look, you have also ordered green tea! [Both simultaneously pour each other cups of tea from their respective teapots brought by the waiter a moment ago.] And everybody is telling you: you cannot become a writer at the age of, say, 8; you need to amass some experience, learn things, experience things. When you are 40, you maybe will manage to say something. Which, of course, is not such a great advice. Today, I would tell a child: go on then, write down whatever you feel – that is an interesting thing to do after all.
A fresh view of things, that’s exactly that everyone finds interesting today. Exactly. When I went to school, I realised soon enough that you were not supposed to say things like that. You were supposed to dream of becoming a cosmonaut or a driver. And so I told everyone that I wanted to be an agronomist or something like that. Just to…
To create a mask to hide behind?
A mask, yes. Otherwise everyone is making fun of you. [Laughs.] If you are honest about what you really want. I did carry on writing, though. I wrote my first story when I was 8. A historical novella dealing with the history of Latvia during the German era. It had everything in it: romance, elopement, love, sex, the usual stuff. It was later, in my final years at school that I started to publish my poems, stories and essays in different Latvian newspapers. At the time, I was already trying to figure out what I should study to become a writer. Should I plump for philology? That seemed a bit ‘much of a muchness’. And so I decided to study history – not in Latvia, though. I wanted to go and study in a very large city. So I went to Moscow to try and get admitted to the Department of History of the Moscow University. The competition was 20 people for one place, and you had to write an essay in Russian at the admission exam. I got 5 out of 5 for content and 3 out of 5 for grammar. I didn’t get in, of course. So I came back to Riga and decided to try to get admitted from here: they explained to me at the Latvian University that there was this thing called ‘national scholarship system’ [where a certain number of student places at the top Soviet higher education institutions were guaranteed to each of the national republics]. It turned out, however, that only two places at the Department of Philosophy of the Moscow University had been allotted to Latvia that year. The admission exams started in two days’ time, and you were allowed to write the mandatory essay in Latvian. So I thought: fine, I’ll do some philosophy and then get transferred to the Department of History. And I passed the exams and got all 5s; besides, the competition was only a couple of candidates for one place… Apparently, no-one from Latvia wanted to study in Moscow – that is, no-one apart from me and a couple of other… geeks. [Laughs.] And so I was admitted to the Department of Philosophy, and it didn’t even take me a couple of months to realise: this is the real thing! An education that teaches you to form your own opinion, your own worldview.
Also, if you try to analyse the Soviet system: Moscow was its eye. Just like the way it is in a human body: the pupil of the eye never sees what is right there under the eye. For this reason, there were more independent and critically-minded lecturers and they were allowed much more liberty than it was, for instance, in Latvia. There were so many interesting people. While they were not openly dissident, they kept telling us: teach yourselves to see, to look; teach yourselves to ask questions. The skill of seeing the world and asking questions: that was the main thing that I got out of my education although I have long since forgotten all the details, like what it was that Kant said about this or that, or Hegel.
Perhaps there is a significant lesson to be learnt from this kind of education: both that so many worldview systems and points of view have replaced one another in the history of mankind, and that so many of them exist alongside one another today…
Yes, it is a bit like learning to look at the world, the development of culture and the course of events from a bird’s eye view – sort of watching it from a higher vantage point. You can respond to things in a very emotional way, for instance, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But if you look at it slightly from above, within a different scale, you see that there is nothing surprising there. If you think about the human nature, the social organisation, the influence of religion…
And yet animation came almost right after you finished your studies of philosophy. Does it mean that you did not feel like working with words anymore and wanted to turn to images?
As I said, the best things in my life have come about by accident. After five years of studies, both I and my fellow students understood: what passes as the ultimate truth today may turn out to be complete rubbish tomorrow. And we couldn’t for the life of us imagine ourselves imposing on someone else a thought or a point of view with great authority while understanding perfectly well that it was not going to be true tomorrow. And so many people from my class changed their direction in life completely. For instance, Valdis Pelšs who was a member of the Neschatniy Sluchay band and later became a star of Russian television. By the way, he was also a ‘national scholar’. Or Irina Bogushevskaya, a good friend of mine, who became a popular singer. And so a moment came when I had to go back to Latvia in four months’ time and teach philosophy; both Irina and I were trying to figure out an alternative way for me. So she said to me: you know what, I really like your doodles, the scribbles that you draw in your copybooks instead of making notes on your lectures. I love them, and I would like to see them move. Give animation a go.
For me, the whole animation thing was somewhere on the outskirts of my mind. Naturally, I had seen some animation films. But who had made them? Definitely not people: it must have been some sort of gnomes or dwarves or something… [Laughs]
Exactly. So she told me: why not try animation? And I thought: yes, it sounds more interesting than teaching philosophy. Irina gave me a newspaper clipping: an ad by a film studio looking for animators. I called them, and they immediately noticed my Latvian accent. You needed a Moscow propiska, a residence registration, to work in the capital. Then Irina called them, and they told her to come in a week’s time at 10 in the morning and bring her portfolio. So I sat down and spent the whole week drawing. And that is when it dawned on me: so this is what I really like! When I still thought that I wanted to become a writer, I used to sit at my desk and do some writing for 15 minutes. And then I always suddenly felt like a snack or had to go to the loo, or go for a walk, or pet the dog. I always dreamt of finding a vocation that would make it possible to lose myself completely in my work, to know and feel nothing except for my work, for 4 or 8 hours running. At the Department of Philosophy, we had a German girl from Eastern Germany who was such a dedicated student that she did not even think of her meals. She actually developed scurvy. She used to say: ‘I just don’t feel like wasting time on eating instead of books.’ I thought: I wish I could be like that… Philosophy did not allow me to forget the rest of the world. So when I started drawing I realised I had found my thing. You get up in the morning and start working; you look up a little later, and it turns out that it has been 8 hours since you sat down. For me it was like a love at first sight.
How do you see your characters? What are they like?
I am self-taught; no-one has taught me art. No-one has tried to force me to change or anything. I don’t know the first thing about the way you are supposed to draw. I draw what I feel. And when I draw what I feel it means that I draw myself. Which means that if you want to get to know all of my characters, you only have to get to know me – and you will see them all. But what am I like? I’m a little bit funny, a little bit serious. Well, again, if you look at me from a bird’s eye view, I’m probably more funny than serious. [Laughs.]
The studio where you went for the job interview, which was it?
I think it was the Pilot Studio. So I brought them my drawings. They were working in a renovated church building back then. The art director went through my drawings; I tried not to speak at all so that he wouldn’t hear my accent. He examined everything very carefully and then said: ‘You know what? You are not an animator, you are a director. You cannot draw but you have good ideas; it’s good thinking. It’s just that we already have more than enough directors of our own. You cannot work in animation: you have no education, no technical skills, nothing. It will take you five years to learn all the ropes. That’s all, I’m sorry. Good-bye.’ And he got rid of me politely yet firmly.
Now, I’m not the sort of person to give in easily. I’m more like a pit bull: once I’ve caught you by the leg, I won’t let you go. So I had caught animation ‘by its leg’. I came back to Latvia and started showing everyone my drawings. I knew some people from the art circles, and they told me to call the Rīga Animation Studio. I called them and set up an interview with Ansis Bērziņš and Roze Stiebra. They looked at my works and said: yes, you are a director but we do not have an opening for a director. We don’t even have an opening for an animator. And no, you definitely cannot work as an animator anyway. What you can do, though, is start from the beginning. First you will be filling in the cels for some time. We will see later, maybe a directing job will open up eventually. I said – fine, although I had no idea what this filling-in job was all about. On my first day on the job… I am a trained philosopher after all, I was taught to earn my living with words and concepts, with my head. Here I was given a small paint brush and told to fill in the space between two lines so that no colour would bleed outside the outline. Now, philosopher that I was, I was all fingers and thumbs! No way could I get it done. And yet they somehow seemed to have great faith in me. Although they had to throw away all the cels I was given at first: they were no good. And that’s how I started to work, from the very bottom of my profession. And I wasn’t even too fond of my job; I found that an hour seemed to last for three days. And yet – time went by, and now I can say with confidence that no-one does it better than I do. That was also what I did in America when I worked for Bill Plympton. He hired me although I did not have a work permit for the USA. He paid very little – but he did pay by the hour. And I was allowed to work at home, so I came in to work at the studio in the morning, picked up a giant package with cels and went home. I am a very lazy person, I want to get everything done as soon as possible. And once I had brought these sheaves of cels home, I filled them in incredibly quickly and incredibly precisely. As a result of this mix of need and fundamental laziness, I became the very best at this job. Except it turned out later that no-one needed these skills anymore. Technology had changed, and in 2005 I also made my very last animation using cels. Everyone else had gone digital before me.
How was it done exactly back then, with the cel?
At Riga Film Studios, the technology was the following. Animators drew their pictures on perforated paper, so that everything could be clipped together like a report or something. They used pencil. Then the pictures were given to the outliners who were usually women. The outliners took a pen and ink, put a cel over the animator’s drawing and drew all the lines in ink. This had to be done very precisely; the pressure applied with the pen couldn’t be either too light or too strong. Then the cel was turned over and given to the colouring ladies. They had these little jars of paint with numbers on and a pattern where everything was written down: for this part use colour No. 5, the hair is No. 4, and so on. The exact colours were chosen by the artist. The colouring lady just had to check: a-ha, so the hair is colour No. 6. So she finds the right jar of paint, fills in the outlines, then waits for the paint to dry and applies the next colour. She does not sit around waiting, of course; she puts the cel away on a shelf and works on a different cel in the meantime.
The whole thing was a bit different at Bill Plympton’s; although he also drew on paper, he then copied the whole thing onto the cel with the help of a special copying machine.
It is so much simpler today. I make my drawings, scan them, treat them with Photoshop and then give them to my colouring ladies. I always hire people with good taste to work on my projects so that I can tell them to choose the colours themselves. I have the final say in this, of course. I have to give their choice thumbs up. They do the filling-in on computer. Doing it this way also takes certain skills, of course…
So your first pieces were commercials?
I was still learning animation back then. Learning the timing. In animation, you can’t simply take a camera and pan it over the whole scene. There is a lot of work behind each frame. You have to calculate everything. When you are filming actors, you can tell them to point a finger at a passer-by. And the actor will point a finger. And you can read this movement. An animator is creating the same gesture out of their own mind. There is a specific meaning to each gesture, connected in its own way with the timing and amplitude of its execution. And for a gesture to be readable, you have to feel its timing with your own body. Every time you notice an interesting gesture in real life, you try and memorise it: that’s a sort of professional cretinism in our trade. I was trying to learn all these things, so I made a little sequence, something to do with frogs and socks. I have no idea why I had put them together. So I made a little 30-second animation. Ansis Bērziņš told me to offer the little film as a commercial for socks produced by the Aurora factory. I visited the factory and met their marketing director, an incredibly beautiful Russian woman; we had a nice conversation about personal life – she had some very interesting stories to tell. And so she said: Let’s use it as a commercial. Allegedly, it was shown on TV at some point.
I went on to make my first real film, ‘The Witch and the Cow’ in 1991. [After a pause.] I don’t know, I am talking so much. Could it possible be of any interest to anyone?
It is to us. How many films did you make in Latvia before moving to America?
Three. There were also ‘Shoes’ and ‘Tigers’ Gold’. And then I left. I also came back to make two films for the Rija Studio a few years later: ‘Woman’ and ‘Veterinarian’. Which means that I have made five films in Latvia in all.
A frame from ‘Dentist’. 2005
Your move to the United States: was it a desire to find yourself in a different, more expansive world? Or was it an emotional decision?
It was a lot of things together; it’s hard to separate one from the others. What attracted me most was the opportunity to test my own potential – find out what I am really capable of. Can I? Can’t I? I saw no way of revealing my potential here in Latvia at the time. And I felt that a potential that has not been activated is like a dead weight that drags you down.
You mentioned gestures and how important they were for an animator. Surely you must have found out that they tend to be somewhat different in America?
I left in 1995 when this country was dominated by a completely different culture from the one that we see today. At the time when I left, no-one ever smiled at each other in the street. It is very different over there: you walk down a street, turn a corner and touch shoulders with someone by accident; the person turns around and smiles at you. They are sort of saying that yes, something happened but it’s fine. Or you walk into a deli and the person behind the counter smiles at you. You immediately start to think: Why? Is there something sticking to my back? Is something the matter with me? Well, after two years in New York I started to smile like that myself. There was this thing once when I was visiting in Riga; I happened to take a ride on a trolleybus and bumped into an old lady by accident. I smiled at her automatically, and she started yelling at me: ‘What’s so funny? What are you smirking at?’ See, I had forgotten that you cannot smile at people here.
In America, do you live permanently in New York now?
Yes. I cannot even imagine myself anywhere else. Firstly, I do not drive. And secondly, the rest of America does not appeal to me particularly. New York is my kind of city.
A frame from ‘Teat Beat of Sex’. 2007
Has the city influenced your work?
Definitely. I have made a number of shorts there: ‘Dentist’, ‘5 Fucking Fables’, ‘Teat Beat of Sex’. How could I possibly present such a project here – how could I ask the government here for money to make a film about sex? ‘I want to make a film based on an idea that has just occurred to me. A film about sex, you know: it is going to antagonise people worldwide.’ So go on then, make this film on your own money. No-one wants to make films on their own money here in Europe; everyone is expecting something from the government. Perhaps the younger generation will change this attitude after all. And yet I am still often asked here in Europe: how can I make films on my own money? Just like that: I work, I earn money and I make films. Or perhaps find a sponsor who is interested in my work; that’s the way it has been for the last few years now. Hope for financial support from the government is very small.
Besides, there is this situation of perpetual confrontation between Democrats and Republicans in America. And it’s perfectly clear to everyone that artists are Democrats. And if the government supports art, the Republicans would say: you are only supporting your own people, they are all Democrats. The Republicans prefer donating to religious organisations. Back in the 1970s, the Democrats started to use a network of non-profit organisations that support artists. Part of the funding for my ‘Rocks in My Pockets’ came from one of these organisations; it’s called Women Make Movies. On the whole, though, the money came slowly and difficultly. I submitted my project to 30 different foundations; we did some fundraising where I invited people to my screenings. And all donations were given through Women Make Movies.
Perhaps it was not a coincidence that it was specifically that kind of foundation. Because it seems to me that in everything you do a great role is played by a woman’s outlook on the world and its eternal stories.
I cannot change the fact that I am a woman – although I love and respect men and their ‘man’s outlook’ very much indeed. When I was young and pretty, I thought that men were the more important part of mankind. Women actually were the ones who eventually persuaded me to change my mind because they are actually very interesting beings. I still don’t understand why there are so few women filmmakers. There are more of them working in documentary cinema and very few in fictional film.
Perhaps it has to do with the fact that a fictional film director is after all a bit of a dictator. A brilliant and intelligent one but still a dictator.
Well, different approaches are possible. For instance, everyone knows that Woody Allen is not a dictator. He never gives his actors any instructions. He gives them the script and then steps back. So that depends on everyone’s individual style of work. Obviously, if you are a director, you are working for your own fame, your own reputation. You have to think that your idea is the most important one in the world. There are very few women who would be capable of that because they are all very practical people. I recently asked an acquaintance who works as a producer for Nickelodeon: how come you are not a director yourself? Your student works were great. She says: Well, that’s because my own ideas do not seem that important to me; when I meet a male director who seems to be completely in love with his own idea, I just want to help him. And I would do anything to help him realise his idea.
Perhaps that’s the real difference. While we women are brought up to support, to be team-workers, a man always goes: This is me; this is mine; this is my name; I must give my child my name; I need my child to keep my name alive – therefore it is important for me to have a son. A woman changes her surname like socks. Although – I was married twice and never changed my last name. I must have some sort of male complex myself. [Laughs.]
Could it be that it really is easier for a woman director to work in animation? So many girls love to doodle in their copybooks – to draw pictures of their own imaginary world. You could say that it is a sort of natural development…
You know what? I am often asked to take part in all sorts of panel discussions in my own field. And I am almost always the only woman among the panel members. That is fundamentally different from the situation in Latvia where, at the time when I started, animation was dominated by women – both among directors and the technical staff. It was almost as if it was not prestigious enough for men. It is completely different in America because animation is rooted in the comic strip culture there. Which is sort of cool for guys. There used to be very few American women animators; it is only for the last decade or so that the situation has been gradually changing.
Speaking of ‘Rocks in My Pocket’: I never thought of making a film about the so-called ‘woman’s fate’. I simply wanted to make a film about the things that seemed interesting to me at the time. And also about the way that my own story has unfolded…
In a way, that’s a dialogue between the narrator and the main character, your grandmother Anna who passed away before you were even born.
I could not have it any other way. That is such a personal story.
Did the personal nature of the story make it more difficult to make? Was it more difficult than working with fictitious character?
It made it more difficult and easier at the same time. If the characters were fictitious, I would have lost this sense of authenticity.
Sense of the way it actually was?
More like – sense of the way I see it. I am not very interested in facts. It’s like the way it was when my sister and I used to go to parties. Mum would ask afterwards: ‘Well, how was it?’ My sister would say: ‘Well, so-so.’ Whereas when I was telling about the party, everything had been very exciting; all sorts of things had happened. My sister would say: ‘It was not like that at all!’ [Laughs]
I find it very important that it is your own voice in the voice-over. You are telling your own story and the story of your family. The narrator’s intonations are reflected quite physically on the screen. We hear everything quite directly. I wonder if anyone from your family has already seen the film?
I just had to show the film to Mum and Dad. Ours is a large family; when my relatives heard that I was making this film, they felt quite uneasy about it. I just kept doing my stuff and did not have the slightest intention of showing the film in Latvia. And yet somehow it came about that they were going to show it in Latvia after all. It was then that I started to worry and showed it to my parents. We sat down by the table with Dad; I opened my laptop. He was sitting there like a bundle of nerves. About 15 minutes into the film, he visibly relaxed and gave a sigh of relief: ‘Well, that’s… that’s art.’ He had thought there would be facts, names, dates. But for me that is not a documentary; it is more like a poem.
And yet – your grandmother’s eight children and their respective stories: is it reality or only partially so?
It is what someone told me or repeated what others had said. I cannot not explain every time that ‘in 1995, my mother told me that a relative of hers had repeated what some other woman had said earlier’. It is my story, my account of things – in the sense that I choose whatever I personally find important. Of course, my extended family – and that’s 60 people – will come to the premiere, and I bet everyone will find something to object to. It did not happen like this, everything was completely different – that sort of thing. Or perhaps they won’t, I have no idea – but I’m scared. I am also scared because it is so unusual in Latvia for someone to reveal to such an extent…
And speak of their problems…
It’s likewith wild dogs. When they meet, they sniff each other. And as they sniff each other’s bums, they are sort of checking which one of them will start to tremble. It is, after all, a very vulnerable part of the body. And when one of the dogs feels that it would not survive a fight with the other, it lies down on its back and reveals its most vulnerable place, the tummy. It is like saying that I am the weakest one here, I am the lower ranking one. The dog that is stronger, if it has any self-respect, will never bite the one that has revealed itself. And yet not all dogs pass this test of trust and respect; sometimes they attack the other dog and bite it in the tummy. The dog that is stronger, if it has any self-respect, will never bite the one that has revealed itself. And yet not all dogs pass this test of trust and respect; sometimes they attack the other dog and bite it in the tummy. And now I am not sure who will bite me in the stomach. Because I feel that I have revealed myself. I am not so much afraid for myself (I will, after all, get on a plane and leave) as for my family. Of course, all the names have been changed and the stories are altered beyond recognition; even my surname is quite a popular one. Still – what if someone feels bad about the whole thing; what if someone’s wedding is off because our family is the way that it is? As for myself, I revealed my personal secrets long ago; it was in ‘Teat Beat of Sex’. Here, these are not my own secrets alone any more. So will bite whom now?
And yet I do believe myself that we have to speak about things like that; we must learn to reveal ourselves. Otherwise, we close up and it seems to us that our feelings are completely unique in this world. It does not occur to us that someone else is going through exactly the same thing. Perhaps it will help someone to know that they are not alone. I strongly believe that everything should be spoken about to bring light and clarity to one’s soul. So that there would be no dark corners hiding horrible monsters. To me, conversation brings clarity. Although it’s probably different for everyone.
I told all this in the hope that perhaps someone else will recognise their own story in this film and realise that they are not alone in the world. And that this sort of thing can be talked about openly. When I showed the film in the Czech Republic, I was approached by young girls who told me: ‘That’s my story’. And that’s despite seeing perfectly well that I am older than they are – that there is this chance of surviving and existing no matter what, of flourishing even and discovering one’s creative potential. It’s just that they live in their 17-year-old universe where they feel that the world is imploding on top of them. My story gives them hope. And that is the most important thing that I want to offer through this film – hope. A hope that there is a chance of not only surviving but also living to the full, of flourishing.
I also thought that it was a very hopeful film.
Yes, I find complaining boring. It is much more interesting for me to entertain the viewer and help him take a detached look at certain things.
I also think that animation is exactly the right format for telling your story. As animated story does not make you think of something staged, as might be the case with an acted film.
Yes, how do you show these feelings from inside in a film using actors? I’ve seen enough movies dealing with mentally disturbed people: they usually take a camera and go around in circles; everything is foggy, everything is shaking. But that’s not it. That does not reflect what is going on inside someone’s mind. It’s not just images: there are thoughts and words in a person’s mind. They often show how it looks on the outside. As for the inside – a film using actors is quite limited in showing that.
And visual metaphors can be very powerful. For instance, a husband is holding his wife; she transforms into a fish and slips out of his hands. She is not human, she is this strange creature that you cannot hold on to.
It’s something out of a fairytale.
Yes, something fantastic, mythological.
It’s a whole different layer found somewhere on the level of the unconscious. And it kicks in at a moment like this.
You know what, I also found it quite weird that at the time when we were still working on the film and started sending out submissions to various festivals as a ‘work in progress’, we received quite a few rejections, mostly from men, based on their opinion that the film was ‘unwatchable’. The film has now premiered at a respectable festival to positive reviews; everything is fine with its distribution. And yet I keep wondering: how could they say that the film was unwatchable? Where did that come from?
My theory is that women filmmakers (including myself) are working on the margins of the film industry. The centre is Hollywood; the area around Hollywood is the independent cinema, also dominated by men. Women find it very hard to break through. Let’s take the Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow. At first her career went smoothly but then she made a film that ‘bombed’. And she couldn’t raise funds for her next project for the following ten years. In a similar situation, a man would probably have to wait for a couple of years. In her case – ten years! And that is why women mostly work in all sorts of half-marginal areas of filmmaking. For instance, making short documentary films. I work in animation. That’s something no-one takes seriously. Which probably makes me twice as marginal. And that is why I can do whatever I want to do. Most independent directors still hope to break through to Hollywood. And there are certain rules of script-writing, let’s say – things that should take place on page 3, etc. That is not something I strive for and I don’t have to worry about that. The people who thought that the film was unwatchable said that there was too much voice-over. True enough, this is not the way it’s usually done. It’s just that I don’t care how it’s usually done. For me the main thing is – can I capture and keep the viewer’s attention? Does it work as a whole or not? We held special test-screenings; based on the results, we shifted certain things, moved things around. We built the film so that it would hold the viewer’s attention. These are the things I worry about. What are the rules on this matter, what should take place on page 3 – I just don’t give a damn. And that’s because I clearly understand my place in this system. If I thought that I could make it in Hollywood I would probably do things differently. And so you could probably say that ‘Rocks in My Pockets’ is a woman’s film. As a woman I have more freedom in how I choose to make my films.