Unlike the horror movie approach of Morgan Spurlock’s 2016 doc Rats, director Theo Anthony’s first feature, Rat Film, works more subtly in building anxiety levels. Here, it directly links the city of Baltimore’s shocking rat infestation to a nearly 100-year-old city-planning model that made certain that all non-white families lived in specific areas of the city. Those areas then became overcrowded, rundown and a perfect habitat for what would become a major rat problem.
Anthony’s examination of the Baltimore situation feels like investigative journalism in video essay form, but the end result is an astonishingly well-reasoned, beautifully edited work. It’s a slightly surreal analysis that moves effortlessly from the personal to systemic racism that runs so deep through Baltimore’s roots it practically moves through the sewers right along with the vermin.
Rat Film features interviews with people who have found their own way of dealing with the creatures—from a city employee whose only job is dealing with rats to a few local residents who use various means to capture or kill the little bastards. The gentleman with the fairly sizable collection of laser-sighted pellet guns is a particular favorite. But Anthony is also sure to visit a few folks who keep rats as pets and cuddle them like they would any soft, fuzzy creature. We meet folks who feed baby rats to their equally personable snakes, and others who bait fishing poles with sliced turkey and peanut butter and cast their lines down dark alleys, ready with a baseball bat for anything they hook.
While not nearly as graphic as Spurlock’s movie, Rat Film does feature a haunting narration by one Maureen Jones. I’m not familiar with any other work she might have done, but her delivery here is so dramatically even-keeled (imagine Werner Herzog but as a woman and with no accent) that it only added to the tension I was feeling waiting for rats to pop out of every dark corner of the screen (seriously, even the cats in this movie appear terrified). The way that Anthony ties Baltimore’s long and troubling history with its rat problem (which includes a discussion of the politics of selecting the correct rat poison many decades earlier) is masterful.
As our resident rat catcher points out early in the film, “Baltimore doesn’t have a rat problem; it has a people problem.” That sounds like a clever line when we hear it, but it also turns out to be 100 percent true. The question then becomes, which people have historically been the real problem? After several generations of its people and buildings being used as some kind of socioeconomic experiment by banks, politicians and even members of the scientific community, portions of Baltimore continue to struggle in many ways. The rats are more a symptom than the actual problem.
Rat Film is a bold, creative, avant-garde documentary, with an often unsettling score from Dan Deacon, that all somehow combines into one of the most informative works about American culture that I’ve seen in quite some time.
The film opens today at Facets Cinémathèque.