/Signe Baumane: self- portrait of the artist

Signe Baumane: self- portrait of the artist

Another animator who will present her working methods to the audience of Etiuda & Anima within the “Self-Portraits of Animation Authors” event, is Signe Baumane.She comes from Latvia, but lives permanently in New York, from where she flew to Krakow. On Wednesday´s evening Baumane will invite us into her intimate world, where she creates her very personal work.

Signe_zdj1Signe Baumane, an independent animator known for her controversial films on the subjects of sex, pregnancy, dentists and madness, was born in Latvia, which was part of the Soviet Union at that time. When she was five, her parents moved to Sakhalin for a job opportunity, and she lived there for three years. In Sakhalin, along with her older sister Aelita, she learned Russian and how to survive in a hostile environment (her family was often mistaken for Nazis because they spoke a language other than Russian). After returning to Latvia in 1971, Signe failed to excel as a student, but showed a deep interest in history, literature and exercise. Her daily commute to school was a three kilometer walk each way. Walking helped develop her physical strength and the prowess to think on her feet.

In 1983 Signe successfully passed exams to enter Moscow State University and study Philosophy. She was not an exemplary Philosophy student. According to one frustrated professor, she used too many metaphors when she should have been using abstractions. However, she made her mark by setting Philosophy Department records for long distance running and cross-country skiing (which was easy because Philosophy students are not so famous for being athletic).

Signe_zdj2With graduation nearing in 1989, Signe was getting desperate, as the Soviets were threatening to assign her to a teaching position at a university of their choice. The one thing she learned in her five years of Philosophy study was that knowledge is relative: what you know to be the truth today can become a lie tomorrow. How could she be certain of what to teach? A friend, who later became a famous Russian singer, suggested that instead of Philosophy, Signe should go into animation. The friend had admired Signe’s doodles in her lecture notebooks and wanted to see them move. Although Signe didn’t know much about animation or even drawing, she made 30 storyboards and character studies over a frantic five day period, and took her new portfolio around to various animation studios in Riga and Moscow. Riga Animated Film Studio hired her at the very lowest position, a cell painter.

In 1991, after two years of being the worst cell painter in the studio’s history, Signe was given an opportunity to direct her first animated short, The Witch and the Cow, a two minute story about a tiny witch trying to milk a humongous cow. When the film was finished, instead of returning to the grind of cell painting, Signe started to work as a freelance designer and illustrator with publishing houses in Moscow and Riga. She illustrated several children’s books and made sets for a puppet theater.

In 1993 Signe received another grant to make Tiny Shoes, a personal fairy tale about a young woman who dreams to marry a prince, but has to live with a dragon instead. Eastern European film festivals recognized it as a bold feminist statement and the film received the Grand Prix award at Minsk International Women’s Film Festival in Belarus.

Signe_12.11In 1995 she received a grant for her next film The Gold of The Tigers, a complicated tale of tigers who interchange dreams with reality and reality with dreams. With her first three films Signe developed her unique storytelling style – direct, head-on, unflinching – and pursued the subjects that she was most interested in: violence, power, womanhood, relationships between men and women. Her first films also showed her fascination with animals, which are a big source of her inspiration.

Between 1999 and 2009 Signe wrote and directed 11 more award winning shorts: The Threatened One (1999) produced by Pierre Poire of Italy, Natasha (2001) coproduced and co-directed with Josh Rechnitz, Five Fucking Fables (2002), Woman (2002) produced by Rija Films in Latvia, Dentist (2005), Five Infomercials for Dentists” (2005), Veterinarian (2007) produced by Rija Films, The Very First Desire Now and Forever (2007), Teat Beat of Sex: Episodes 1 – 3 (2007) produced by Pierre Poire, Teat Beat of Sex: Episodes 8 – 11 (2008) produced by Pierre Poire, and Birth (2009).

In all of Signe’s work, the influences of Eastern European traditions like those of Stasys Eidrigevicius in illustration and Jan Svankmajer in animation are easy to spot. But her New York films have a new, specifically American sensibility with their accessible storylines, developed gags and outrageous humor.

Her enterprising spirit has found an outlet in the New World, as well. Along with Pat Smith she was the organizing core of Square Footage Films, a collective of elevenindependent New York animators that compiled and distributed two DVD volumes of Avoid Eye Contact: Best of New York Independent Animation. She regularly puts together and presents screenings of independently animated shorts films. Best known is The Battle of the Sexes, a program where she and Bill Plympton show animation, trade insults and plea their cases before an applause-metered audience to determine which gender is better at making animated shorts about sex.

In 2010 Signe wrote the script for a feature film Rocks in My Pockets based on her personal brushes with mental breakdowns, and soon started production. The film combines paper mache, three-dimensional backgrounds photographed in stop motion with hand drawn, 2D traditional animation. Rocks In My Pockets has now been finished and is to be released in 2014.

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 History of Depression

While Signe was still studying at Moscow State University, she got pregnant and married the father of her future child, a Russian artist. After her son was born, Signe started having dark obsessive thoughts. She sought council with a local psychiatrist to whom she confessed that at 18 she had tried to commit suicide by taking an excessive amount of Dimedrol. She was immediately sent to a Soviet mental hospital and locked away for four months. Her official diagnosis was schizophrenia, but this was downgraded to the “lesser” manic-depressive after her parents bribed medical officials. Despite her diagnosis, Signe returned to the University, graduated successfully, and started her career as an animator. It turned out that Signe was not the only one in her extended family having dark, obsessive thoughts. In fact, she had plenty of company. Unfortunately, not all of the sufferers were able to fend their demons off. Rocks In My Pockets is dedicated to Signe’s family members who did not survive, and to her surviving family, who still live in the aftermath.

The film is dedicated to the hope that we have in our darkest moments.


Self-portraits of Animation Authors, Part II – Signe Baumane

Malopolska Garden of Arts (large screening room)
November 24th (Wednesday), 7 p.m.