“Every 12 seconds I think of suicide”: animator Signe Baumane on illustrating mental illness

The Latvian illustrator Signe Baumane, who has made a funny animated film about depression, discusses her family history of mental illness, and being put in a Soviet mental institution.

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“I think about sex every nine seconds,” says Signe Baumane, the Latvian-born writer and animator behind the strangest and most perceptive film about mental illness I’ve ever seen. “It’s like a pulse.”

Rocks in My Pockets – tagline: “a funny film about depression” – is her first feature-length animation, and it was four years in the making. That’s a whole lot of sex thoughts. Or, more aptly, death thoughts:

“And every 12 seconds, I think about killing myself,” she says.

The film – a part stop-motion, part hand-drawn animation exploration of Baumane’s family history of depressive disorders – debuted in the UK last year. This summer it was shown at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts as part of the Bechdel Test Fest, a year-long celebration of women in film.

Baumane, via an intricately surreal narrative in which depression is personified as a kind of human-bear-ghost, tells the story of how she and four female family members survived (or didn’t, tragically) mental illness in Soviet-controlled Latvia. It doesn’t sound funny. Somehow it is. Sad things often are, if you attack them with just the right level of bluntness – which Baumane does.  

In her studio, in a former industrial complex in Brooklyn (Baumane relocated to the US in the 90s) she sits surrounded by brightly coloured papier mâché models used in the film. She’s quick to explain that this pulse of suicidal thoughts isn’t something she acts on.

“It’s not so much killing myself,” she says, “as erasing myself. Like I don’t want to exist.”

It’s these thoughts, in fact, that inspired Baumane, 51, who is bipolar, to make a film about depression. In her 2007 compilation of animated shorts, Teat Beat of Sex, she explores her nine-secondly sex thoughts. With Rocks in My Pockets, she wanted to examine her “darker side” (that is to say, those other thoughts – the ones about death).

“I wanted to think about why it is I don’t want to exist. So I started writing this dark comedy about how I would not kill myself.”

And the humour, it turns out, is completely accidental. Baumane, aged eight, began writing novels. Tragic novels. “The landlord’s son falling in love with a peasant girl and running off together. That sort of thing.” When she was 14, a short story she wrote about an interaction between her and her mother was published in a local paper. And, to Baumane’s bemusement, it made people laugh.

“When I started writing in my own personal voice, people found it funny and wanted more of it. I wanted to write these Dickensian stories about tragic lives, but it turned out my personal voice was funny.”

Even now, Baumane doesn’t set out to make people laugh, but rather to “gently provoke and surprise” them. But surprising things, it turns out, can be quite funny.

Baumane chose to make the surprisingly funny Rocks in My Pockets feature-length, purely for the challenge.

“If anything, this film broke me mentally,” she says, with that characteristic candour, “I don’t make films for myself, I make them for other people. I want to engage in conversation. For me, the process of making the film was so hard and painful that I can’t possibly think of any personal benefits.”

She explains that, after a gruelling four years of animating her darkest thoughts and bringing to life her family’s tragic history, the year-long pause while waiting to hear back from film festivals sent her spiralling into a long-lasting depressive episode.

“Making a film independently is a ball-breaking enterprise,” she concludes.

But back to that suicide studded dynasty. For Baumane, sharing Rocks in My Pockets with her family, all back in Latvia, has been yet another difficulty. Initially, she only meant for the film – which she wrote in English – to be shown in the English-speaking world. When, nearing the end of production, she ran out of money, she set up a Kickstarter campaign which raised over $50,000. Some of this came from Latvians who, in exchange for their donations, wanted to see the film in their own language.

“If I knew my family would see it, I never would’ve made it,” she says.

Even during production, when Baumane’s wider family got wind of what she was up to, they began phoning her father and demanding that he stop her from revealing what they saw as their shameful past. Nevertheless, last year the film debuted in Baumane’s home country to an audience of 600 people, around 60 of whom were her relatives.

“In Latvia people don’t talk about depression,” she says. “So the film became a centrepiece for people to talk about mental illness and suicide. In abstract, I could be proud of that. But in reality I have to go to Latvia and see my family, and shake their hands. And some of them don’t want to be in the same room as me.”

Baumane says that, although the younger generation of her family were quite accepting of her work, some of her older relatives were furious with her for revealing the family to be, well, insane.

“They were like – ‘no one will marry the younger generation because everybody knows the family is crazy’.”

After the screening, however, several non-family members came and told her that they recognised their own family histories in the film.

“I thought – ‘why does my family think it has the copyright to suicide and depression?’” says Baumane. “If we all sit down and talk about our families – we’ll find that similar things happened. We’re humans – we’re built of the same things. And we break down. If we were all open about it, there would be no shame, no stigma – nothing.”

This stigma is something that has followed Baumane around since she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in the 80s. She explains that, in the Soviet Union, people like her (often creative types) were sent to mental institutions rather than being drafted into the army. This had its benefits. There was, apparently, a sense of pride in being cast out of the oppressive system and becoming an outsider.

“In some ways, while I was growing up, being in a mental hospital was a badge of honour. It was a subversive act – it puts you out of the system without really putting you out of the system.”

In spite of the slight dissidence (not quite enough to alert the attention of the KGB) of foregoing military service, the cons of life in a Soviet mental institution – as you can probably imagine – outweighed the pros.

“The things I saw in there were so scary,” she says.

She tells the story of one 23-year-old woman she met in hospital. This woman, who suffered a major breakdown after being raped when she was 17, was, “chucked into a mental institution and fed pills”. By the time Baumane met her, daily doses of anonymous medication had made her incontinent and barely able to speak.

“She was a walking vegetable,” says Baumane, “and that was just from the pills. She couldn’t put two words together.”

Even in far less extreme cases, many of those who left psychiatric hospitals were tarnished for life and only considered fit for the most menial jobs. When Baumane was discharged from hospital in 1988, she made a decision to, “put everything I had into learning how to be happy”. As a philosophy student, she turned to books for answers and was particularly inspired by the work of – “you’re going to laugh, because he’s so discredited now” – Carl Jung.

“I started to see my life as a pearl on a string. And there are all these other pearls on the string, people before me. Then there’s me – my life. And then there are pearls after me. And if I committed suicide, there would be an empty space. And no other pearl can take that place.”

But, what is it with artists and depression? The prevalence of mental illness in those in creative industries often seems overwhelming. Is it possible then that being, say, bipolar, can actively feed creativity?

“It’s a complicated issue,” says Baumane, who isn’t quite sure either way.

She tells me one theory she used to have about artists and depression, inspired by her childhood love of O Henry. In one of Henry’s short stories, a bank robber is able to crack safes more effectively by filing his nails down to the point where he exposes a nerve. This enables him to feel a “click”, when he dials the correct combination.

“For me, that’s a parable of an artist. Because when you’re depressed, or bipolar, or suffering from anxiety – you experience so much pain, but if you didn’t experience it, you wouldn’t feel the click. You wouldn’t have such a sensitive understanding of the world.”

Then again, Baumane says, what about those who suffer from depression but aren’t creative? “What are they suffering for?” she asks. “So perhaps it’s just a coincidence that so many artists have mental health problems.”

“Personally though, I can’t distinguish the difference between my creativity and my mental illness. I don’t know where one starts and the other ends.”

Baumane explains that the drive to create art, in spite of poor pay and relentless criticism from the outside world, is “insane”.

What’s more, in the same way that she never really intended to be funny, Baumane became an animator by pure chance. In the Soviet Union, philosophy was considered part of the ideological war machine. When Baumane graduated, she was expected to become a teacher. “I was trained to brainwash people. Then I was supposed to either train other people to do so, or brainwash them myself. And I didn’t want to do that.”

A friend told her that she liked Baumane’s “doodles” and suggested that she go into animation. Although this was something she’d never really considered, she began organising these “doodles” into storyboards. Back when she was studying, she found herself easily distracted.

“But there were other people in my faculty who were so obsessed with what they were doing that they’d get scurvy, or forget to eat. And I thought if I could ever find an occupation where I forget about eating, about pissing, about everything, then I would just do it.” When Baumane began obsessively drawing up storyboards, she realised that she’d found exactly that. “I was in love,” she says.

She’d also found a way of coping with her depression. “I tried treating myself with sleep, and that didn’t work. I tried treating myself with drink, and that didn’t work either. The only thing that works is getting up, sitting at the table and, with tears in your eyes, just getting on with your work. That’s mental illness.” 

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist.