The Latvian filmmaker, who premieres her new film at the SEFF this Wednesday, offers an entertaining and illuminating session in the 'Essential Voices' cycle
Defined by the journalist Charo Ramos, coordinator of the Essential Voices cycle, as a sort of "Patti Smith of cinema", Signe Baumane made the comparison this Wednesday in her appearance as part of this section of the Seville European Film Festival, in a new session held in the Cicus Auditorium. The session was also attended by the filmmaker, professor, critic and programmer of the event Elena Duque, a great specialist in animated films. With a punk attitude, but a punk at the antipodes of the unpleasant and interested more in contemplating the world with a desacralising and unchristian but luminous filter, the Latvian filmmaker based in New York starred in a session that was fun, approachable and full of humor.
"From a very early age I liked to tell stories. The first one I remember I wrote when I was 8 years old. It was about the history of Latvia, set in the 17th century and spiced with a lot of drama, there was love, sex, abuse... When I was 14 I published my first story in a newspaper, and everyone started to tell me that I was too young and inexperienced, that how could I want to be a writer when I was only 14, where had they seen that? So, because they were so inexperienced, I said to myself: ok, so where is the experience, I want it all… So I dedicated myself to having a lot of sex, to investigating the depths of things in order to begin to be a real human", Baumane recalled about her first creative steps... and sexual, a theme that has never ceased to be present in her work.
"Then I went to study philosophy in Moscow, for which I had to learn Russian, so I actually had to learn two things, Russian and philosophy, and it took a lot of work but it was worth it because Moscow was then the capital of the empire, a very international city, so... I could have sex with a lot of different people! Yes, I know I talk a lot about sex," the director added, "but for me it's a very interesting form of human communication, not just a reproductive activity.
"When I graduated, I went back to Riga to teach philosophy, but I soon realised that it was not what I wanted to do. At that time, those were the times of the Soviet Union, everything was ideological discipline and I had to do things like lecturing on Marxism-Leninism, which to tell the truth I didn't even understand. It was a friend of mine, who is now a famous singer in Russia, who told me that she liked my doodles very much, and that she would love to see them in motion. I replied that I had no idea about animation, but it certainly seemed much more interesting than teaching philosophy. And the truth is that the first day I started trying to develop an animated story, the day flew by and I couldn't think of anything else. Then I knew I had found the right thing, what I wanted to do, what made me feel for the first time that I was in the right place at the right time.
Today Baumane is a highly respected artist in the field of animation, in which she can also boast of having been a pioneer in the treatment of subjects such as female sexuality or mental health problems, always filtered through the sieve of her unbridled humor and an imagination that tends towards surrealist escapes when it comes to tackling profound questions. "I speak from my own experience, because that is what I know best, but what really interests me is to ask myself questions related to the human condition", says Baumane, who in his images achieves something akin to squaring the circle: turning concepts, emotions and social constructions that are, in fact, enormously complex into simple gags, and doing so, moreover, while making people laugh.
Charo Ramos, Signe Baumane, Elena Duque © Lolo Vasco
FAREWELL TO THE SOVIET UNION
"By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, I had been working for some time in an animation studio in Riga, where I was painting the backgrounds of the images... I was the last one in the studio, after me there was only the cleaning lady. And the truth is that I was terrible at it, I was really bad, I just didn't paint well. In any case, I had already made some short films, but I felt that in Latvia I was destined to have a very short life as an artist. So when communism collapsed, because I wanted to find out what my real potential was and I wanted to see other things, I put all my money together, 300 dollars, and I went to New York, where I only knew one person, to make a living," the filmmaker continued.
There, as soon as she arrived, and given the evidence that she still had "the necessary skills for American animated films", Baumane tried her luck as a book illustrator, but was unsuccessful. "I went to about 30 and almost all of them told me the same thing: your portfolio is great, how original, it's fantastic, you have a unique style, but we don't know how to sell this, good luck," recalled the author, who was ready to return to Latvia with her tail between her legs when she remembered the studio of the animator Bill Plympton, whom she admired. "After all, we animators are all friends, we're like a Masons' society," she laughed, "Why not try your luck, when all seemed lost? I was very nervous, my whole body was sweating, my legs were shaking, I felt like I was going on a date with Brad Pitt, and he liked my portfolio. And he liked my portfolio. Do you know how to paint backgrounds, he asked me. Oh, sure, I'm the best background painter in Latvia.
For five years she worked for Plympton, who eventually became one of her great visual inspirations, along with the political posters of Eastern Europe in the 1970s, full of "metaphors and double meanings", and the unique worlds of Czech stop-motion alchemist Jan Švankmajer.
FROM SEX TO DEPRESSION
"My experience at Bill's studio also helped me to learn how to make films quickly and cheaply," says Baumane, who in 2002 set up her own studio and set about creating a series with which she made her first breakthrough: Teat Beat of Sex (2007), a series of one-minute shorts in which the filmmaker spoke openly about sex and questioned the roles traditionally assigned to women, while shattering the corsets of animated film. Those who had no previous knowledge of the Latvian filmmaker's work were able to see it at the Cicus, as the author screened the first three episodes, in which the male obsession with the size of his pride (and other matters) or the delirious deformation of women in the sexual imaginary of the alpha males are dispatched with lucidity and laughter.
Another major touchstone in her career was Rocks in my pockets (2014), her first feature film, with which the filmmaker wanted to shed light on the suicidal ideas and black thoughts to which she sometimes succumbed. Researching her own roots, the author learned that her grandmother was found in 1941 in a river while attempting suicide, and from that point the film became an enquiry into the history of her family, frequently hit by mental problems, depressions and other "breakdowns", as she has called them. "We all hide these problems and these crises, we choose to pretend they don't exist, which is absurd. We all have mental problems at some time, because we are all human, that is, because we are all fragile. Life is very hard and we have to accept and love ourselves as we are. I myself am bipolar, so I recommend that you don't marry me", said the author, referring to her latest work, which she is presenting this afternoon in the Official Section in Seville.
A "BIOLOGICAL THRILLER"
"I don't make films as personal therapy. Films are made because they can be made, if I wanted to be mentally healthy I wouldn't have made the film, I would have spent the 160,000 dollars it cost to make it on a therapist. In fact, My Love Affair with Marriage was a painful process. I make films because I want to communicate, I want to connect with other people, although of course there is something therapeutic about making films, at least in the sense that it is necessary to have a purpose in life. I know that my films don't have a big audience like Hollywood productions, but I know that they are seen by people who think and feel, and that for me is fundamental," he explained.
Her new film is an amusing amendment to the traditional social belief that a woman is not complete unless she finds a man to share her life with. And in the process of scrapping the notion of romantic love, the filmmaker uses the knowledge accumulated by neuroscience to describe the chemical mechanisms and purely cerebral reactions that come into play when we feel what we call falling in love. "I had made short films about sex and a film about mental problems. So I put those two subjects together in one film: sex and depression, i.e. marriage. It is the only film of its kind, the biological thriller. If you want to know what ended your previous relationship," she said, "this is the film you have to see.
I wanted to understand why we fell in love," added Baumane, "and why we got married, I wanted to take off a little bit, not completely, just a little bit of the mask, to see what's behind the overrated and popular emotion of romantic love. I myself was addicted to falling in love, no doubt the sensations are wonderful, it's as if you're high, but if you think about it coldly it's a bit strange, isn't it? That's why I've tried to get closer to that magical feeling that love gives us, but in an objective way".