Signe Baumane is a Latvia-born animated film maker and illustrator, who deals with themes such as sex and depression. Very funny, bold and poignant erotic short films like Teat Beat of Sex or Five Fucking Fables have probably both delighted and shocked the marginal audience of indie animation.
Just recently she completed her first feature length animated film and is now touring through the festival screenings around the world, giving introductions, Q&A’s and promoting the film. She also visited Finnish Animatricks film festival just recently. I too had a word with her. Here’s some of her very interesting thoughts about animation and cinema.
What kind of films you grew up with, and where did you see them?
I grew up in a small town in Latvia (about 16,000 residents at that time, now probably 25,000) in a big private house on the outskirts of the town. Across the street from the house was a bus stop and there was a board for movie posters that was updated each Friday.
The posters intrigued me, they depicted mature, sophisticated men and and women of the kind one doesn’t see in small towns in Latvia. Starting when I was about 10 one or two nights a week I would walk 3 km to the town’s movie theater to see a movie.
The movie theater was built on Soviet money, a boring white brick building on outside, it seated 400 people inside. Because the small town was more interested in their gardens, children and houses most of the nights I was the only person watching a movie in that theater.
Except, when an Indian movie screened.
Then the first 2 rows filled with local young gypsies who sung along and shouted at the characters in the movie when they did something upsetting.
I felt a huge affinity for gypsies – I had always wanted to be one and I used to have Gypsy friends when I was 8, but a friendship with a gypsy was hard to sustain – they got engaged at 10, married at 12 and moved a lot.
In any case, the seats in the first 2 rows were the cheapest – 5 kopeks. The gypsies were there because 5 kopeks for a movie was a good deal. After the movie they’d hide in the toilet and come back to watch the same movie for the 295th time.
The last row (20) which I preferred and was able to afford was the most expensive – 70 kopeks. I was there because the wall behind me allowed me to think I was part of the wall, barely visible. Between me and the gypsies were 18 empty rows, filled with their noise and my envy for their freedom.
The movies I saw there were mostly from USSR allies – Czech, Polish, Indian. France and Italy had strong Communist parties at that time, so I saw a lot of French and Italian movies. And YES – an occasional American movie that seemed to trash CIA and US government, like Three Days of the Condor. Most of the movies I saw were mainstream, or near mainstream, foreign films.
I was not interested in Russian movies or any other Soviet movies – they all were propaganda to me. And one got enough of those Soviet propaganda war movies
at home on TV.
Then I went to study in Moscow and there I discovered Ingmar Bergam movies. And French New Wave which blew me away.
Last Year at Marienbad was my favorite film for a LONG time (until 5 years ago when I saw it again). It influenced my own 20 min The Gold of The Tigers.
Towards the end of Soviet Union and my studies in Moscow, in the fall of 1988 I went to screenings of an alternative film festival that had started in Riga – Arsenals.
It truly changed my life.
During the Arsenals’ week I saw 4 – 5 films a day, each of them revealing a Universe not known to me before. I dont remember names of specific directors, nor movie titles. Just images and shock and awe I experienced. They represented the dare and freedom that I have always longed for. Now I was grown enough to try it myself.
What does classic European animation culture and it’s animation legends mean to you?
I like European animation culture, but I feel I dont know enough about it. One of my biggest influences is Jan Svankmajer, but, again, I don’t know if I know enough about him or his work to be able to deliver a valid opinion.
Yuri Norstein is certainly a big legend in the parts were I grew up (I think his Hedgehog in the Fog is an undying masterpiece). But I dont know what it means to me.
Well. Now that I mentioned Yuri Norstein, I actually do know what it means to me. The legends sometimes grow so big that the shadow they cast impedes growth of something fresh and new.
The legends grow inflexible and intolerant of differences and since they exercise so much influence, they can really block one’s path to discovering something new.
Beware legends, I’d say.
What are the biggest differences between European and US animation culture?
Well, the basic and the most obvious difference is where the money comes from. That determines what stories are being told and how.
In Europe (at least up until recently) and Canada there was a deep seated tradition of comprehensive government support for the arts (and animation).
Artists/ animators had to apply for the grants and in the application had to indicate why their project was so good and meaningful for the taxpaying public etc.
Usually applicants stress the value of their Art as part of the country’s culture that could be represented (and boasted about) abroad. This kind of funding process creates a lot of ‘artsy’ projects that have little concern for audience engagement or entertainment value. In US the government support (for many reasons) is barely there and so artists and animators are left on their own.
A lot of independent animators I know in US invest their own money in their projects. But how do you justify investing $6,000 – $10,000 of your own money in a short that you cannot sell (shorts dont make a lot of money)? So an animator make a film in hopes to get a commercial or a TV show.
And populates the film with characters and designs that are borrowed from TV, while investing great care in connecting the story withe the audience by making it funny.
Of course, this is oversimplified version of the differences, but this is how I see it. In Europe the stress is on Art. In US the stress is on Entertainment. The most successful animated shorts from Europe and US are the films that do well both – Art and Entertainment.
What kind of arts and animation (film makers and films) were you influenced by when you started out animating?
There was a Czech TV show called Stremyanka and Makaronka about 2 dogs that I watched a lot growing up.
There was also Cheburashka, he was my imaginary friend when I was 5 – 8.
I’ve seen Hedgehog in the Fog about 4858 times. I love Svankmajer. Bill Plympton’s MTV signal films made an impact on me. I am in awe of Miyazaki, but he is out of my league to be even influenced by him. Inspired, yes. I love Mind Game by Masaaki Yuasa. Persepolis. Waltz With Bashir.
But my influences don’t really come from animation world. The way how I think visually comes from Eastern European tradition of illustration and poster art. Stasys Eidrigevicius was the greatest influence.
Then – the French New Wave films. Alain Resnais in particular.
Jorge Luis Borges (although – I am trying to read him now and find him incredible sexist and pretentious.) Kurt Vonnegut (his work hasn’t aged for me a bit.) Carl Gustav Young (i know his work is now kind of discredited, but it greatly influenced my life and brain.)
Although animation (especially short) is generally outside of popular awards and culture, there’s a lot of film festivals fully or partly dedicated to animation. How important is it for animated film maker that there are those, and how much being awarded makes a difference?
It is an interesting question, about animation festivals vs film festivals, I have been pondering about it myself.
Is it a good thing to have your film put into the class of animation or is it better to keep it open in the broader class of filmmaking? Is it mutually exclusive?
And what does it mean if your film does well in a festival where it competes with live action films but can’t get accepted in animation festivals? or viceversa – animation festivals love your film but all the others shrug their shoulders.
A good film is a good film, no matter if it’s screened at a film festival or animation festival or on TV. Take as an example Persepolis and Waltz With Bashir.
They erase the line between animation and live action film. Which is how it should be with a good film. They also entered consciousness of mainstream audiences – a good place to start changing how animation is perceived.
I find it tragic that the term ‘animation’ was highjacked by big commercial studios that use the term to sell their films for children.
If you ask any random person on the street what is animation, they’d say it’s a film for children. I complained about it to John Canemaker once and suggested we invent another word for animated films that are not for children, something like anifilm or animovie.
We need a new category, because the old one was stolen from us. He agreed about the theft, but disagreed about making up a new name. “It would be giving in to the thieves,” – he said. “Lets fight for the term instead of giving up”.
And he might be right.
As to awards – of course, awards are nice. It ads to the honor and increases the profile of the film.
But I am not sure if the world starts and ends with awards. Awards can be accidental (I have sat on enough juries to see how the winners are decided, it’s a process not unlike lottery).
Again, a good film is a good film and even without any awards it is still a good film.
Youtube? Made short animation that seldom gets screen time on tv or many screenings at cinemas accessible to non-festival goers and all the people around the globe. A blessing or a media that kills atmosphere of animated film?
As a consumer I love YouTube. I am frightened of it as a filmmaker – we have to take down 3 – 5 illegal uploads of Rocks In My Pockets a day.
Also, as a filmmaker who makes maybe not difficult but not easily accessible films I see that YouTube is almost like a high school popularity contest.
I could never win such a contest in a high school and I cannot win it on YouTube. What does YouTube like? Talking cats and dogs, fail videos, celebrities and already popular filmmakers.
Outside that it likes something that is realistic and easy to understand, like Tales of Mere Existence by Lev. Or something extraordinary and weird that is overlaid on ordinary, realistic/real things, like Blu’s Muto or PES’ Western Spaghetti.
I feel sad when I see great work neglected by the thrills seeking short attention span that rules YouTube.
But YouTube is still a great tool for filmmakers. The way to deal with it might be to have curated content – have channels that show good work and build an audience for unusual films. Like film festivals, only online.
What about digitality in all it’s forms?
I love it. Digital made me a much better filmmaker!
There’s a very good percent of talented female film makers in the history of animation anyway, but I simply cannot think of dividing film makers in female and male animated film makers. Do you often have to think yourself especially as a female film maker or have you ever been treated as such?
It would be a perfect world where we didn’t have to categorize filmmakers by their gender. We do that because one gender has dominated the film industry for a very long time and because we are not even able to see the walls women bang against unless we make a temporary gender distinction and ask: what is happening here – why men are able to proceed to great success and women stay behind? Read this.
And maybe the gender division doesn’t quite make sense to you because you are looking at the field of animation where we are all marginalized, women animators and men animators, all alike. But even on our margins there is a deep seated bias against women and women stories.
Male festival programmers naturally relate more to male stories, and I dont blame them. But it makes their selection biased.
By artificially marking the gender line between film makers we are able to confront the bias. Annecy this year is celebrating women animators and you may laugh about it, but I find it exciting. It brings attention to and celebrates the difference.
As to me – since I started out in animation in Latvia in 1989 I was told that I would not succeed as a director unless I found the right man to join my team as a producer, animator and husband. But it didnt work out.
When I moved to New York, and started making films independently I felt that as a woman I had a lot of advantages – no one expected me to make a lot of money, no one expected me to pay for the dinners. I actually saved a lot of money by having men pay for the dinners. A male indie animator would not be able to pull it off.
But after 10 years of making independent films I was still in the same place. I couldn’t understand why I was not making more money and not getting higher level offers. I started to pay attention and realized that partly it was my own thinking – I didnt care so much for money. But I also realized that there is hidden sexism in the industry – TV and film are all oriented towards the mythical ‘young male audience” (age 21). With the work I do and the way I think I could not possible cater to that audience. As a consequence, I do not get high paying, high profile projects. I have to carve out my own audience.
As Rocks in my Pockets is so personal piece, what were the biggest doubts, fears or challenges making it to reality and shown to whole world?
I really didnt have any fears about making such a personal film because when I started to work on it I was an ignorant fool. I didn’t know what will happen, where the film is going to be screened and what my reaction to the audience reactions will be.
When the first screenings were secured I realized that the film will be also shown in Latvia and I got really scared – it is one thing to reveal your own personal secrets but it’s another to reveal the secrets of your extended family. What if they outcast me? I still don’t know if they’ll forgive me.
Every time when after the film’s screening I go on stage to do Q&A, I feel frightened. Exposed. Vulnerable. I didnt know 5 years ago when I started working on the film I’d feel that way.
As to ” my biggest doubts, fears or challenges making it to reality ” – preparing the voiceover was pretty stressful – I am not an actress and a theater director Sturgis Warner rehearsed with me for 7 weeks 5 hours every day (on weekends, too) but nevertheless just before we did a test reading for a small audience of 20 I had a fit of hysteria which of course, was coming from performance anxiety.
Now I know what actors feel before going on stage!
Did the project even after crowd finding leave you with debts? I’ve heard this.
Making of the Rocks In My Pockets (before distribution and marketing expenses) was around $280,000. I had raised around $150,000 in donations via non profit organization Women Make Movies.
The project received around $25,000 in grants from New York State Council on the Arts and private Jerome Foundation.
We raised $52,000 through a Kickstarter campaign – but after shelling out 5% to Kickstarter, 5% to Amazon and shipping expenses (rewards had to be sent to over 500 backers) we got $42,000 for the project.
Our Latvian co-producer Locomotive Productions received around $22,000 support from Latvia’s Kino Center. It just was not enough, so I found an investor and now the investment is looming over my head.
It’s not a debt. It’s an investment. I probably see it in a more negative light that I should (I am a depressive after all). But it is a huge responsibility.
Future plans? With what techniques and forms you plan to express yourself? Any projects at the moment?
I am still busy with promoting Rocks In My Pockets. Traveling to festivals for Q&A takes time. Writing email responses to fans and inquiries takes time. I don’t have a staff doing stuff for me.
But I do have a new project in mind. After making many short films on sex and one animated feature on depression I have decided to combine the two topics – sex and depression – in one film. So am making a film about marriage.
Ten films that I have always loved. Hmm… Spirited Away, Mind Game, Breathless, Some Like it Hot, Modern Times, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, La Dolce Vita, Southern Comfort, American Hollow, Picnic at Hanging Rock.