At last, it’s what we’ve been asking for: a documentary about Baltimore’s storied rat infestation.
What if a documentary compared the lives of rats to the lives of human beings? It is the prompt for a problematic, think-piece-generating film sure to divide viewers on the socio-political spectrum. And that’s what director Theo Anthony gets at in what is perhaps the most arresting documentary of the century.
To say rats’ and humans’ lives are similar is to raise questions about our empathy for animals and humans. What say us when we use animals as test subjects? What does it say about us when the rattus norvegicus, a living being, becomes an infestation? What does it say about us when we can draw thorough comparisons between ourselves and rats?
Rat Film begins with a creation myth: “Before the world became a world it was an egg. Inside the egg it was dark. The rat nibbled the egg and let the light in. And the world began.” So narrates Maureen Jones in an uncaring, monotone voice, with timbre echoing a calculated Siri.
In eras before smart phones, the tonality of an intelligent computer might be off-putting. But in a world of technology, where humans interact daily with false-conscious robots, Jones’ narration is a trustworthy and reliable source of information. She’s an impartial tour guide through the bold statement that is Rat Film.
Theo Anthony foreshadows his coming narrative by opening with footage of a rat trapped in a trashcan. The scraping of its claws on the thick plastic is unnerving. “Dear God,” you think, “Cant that thing jump out?” These Norway rats can jump up to 32 inches. Baltimore’s trash cans measure 34 inches high. And so the framework is set.
Anthony’s documentary is both a foreboding, minimalist theme park ride and a proper documentary. As if in a maze, he roams a 24-bit video game rendering of Baltimore while Jones waxes philosophical. He then pivots, and illustrates the rat/human metaphor, fixing on the reality of today’s Baltimoreans. The rodents have thrust themselves into people’s lives. Though stark, the contrast is palatable, with praise to Anthony for never losing sight of the parallel lives of vermin and human.
For animal lovers Rat Film must be a hard pill to swallow. Interjecting stories of historical rat studies beginning as a search for answers to the question, “How do we kill them?”, preceded studies replicating human society, using disturbing methods and providing disturbing results.
Anthony doesn’t place more weight on animal cruelty than human cruelty, instead drawing similarities to minority communities, neglected likewise. Cruelty knows no species.
In the early 20th Century, housing commissions redlined neighborhoods. By color-coding parts of city maps, government officials identified areas as safe for capital investments (green and blue areas), or at-risk neighborhoods (yellow and red). Yellow and red areas had high African American populations—a result of segregation and myriad systemic barriers—and designated “lower-grade” populations of “obsolescence.” Anthony overlays these archaic maps with today’s maps of income, violence, and housing statistics—they haven’t changed.
Decades ago, an important study showed a high rat population placed into overcrowded spaces created a society of chaos. “A class of dominant rats emerged,” Jones narrates. Males attacked females and created harems of 8 to 10 females per dwelling. Food and resources were scarce.
Mothers neglected their children. Rates of asexuality rose. Cannibalistic rats preyed on the young.
It’s not a stretch of the imagination to see fellow humans under similar social strain. The borders are in place. The power structures exist to keep them there. We see this with one of Baltimore’s career rat catchers. He is the distributor of the “No Choice” poison, a deadly powder that coats the rats and their homes, leaving them with no choice but to clean themselves, ingest it, and die. We meet locals who fish for rats with baited fishing lines and lethal post-hook baseball bats. A worrisome enthusiasm lives among them and the man who has fashioned his own specialized rat-killing firearms or blow dart gun. Does the rodent problem bring people together? Does it provide people with better alternative activities? Does it serve as a gruesome reflection of a man-made, human and rodent-inclusive caste system? I’d hesitate to answer no.
If Rat Film suffers from any flaws, it’s only one: rhythm. The director has two clear visions. They don’t always roll out in tandem, like a series of vignettes. We take commercial breaks from art-house, or bathroom breaks from material characters. A seesaw between narrative forces, it may seem abrupt to most. But the overall message is clear, as the film’s tag states: “There’s never been a rat problem in Baltimore, it’s always been a people problem.” We and marginalized minorities, live as test subjects for the wealthiest and most powerful. Without sermonizing, Anthony reminds us: we must treat each other not as invasive, but as a community of individuals, yet to unite under freedom. Baltimore (each one of us) can’t continue to live in a tiered, self-destructive society.
Lucky for us, we have Rat Film to remind us of what we can do better, and it reminds us in a jarringly original way.
Playing in select theatres.
Run Time: 1 hr 22 mins
Directed by: Theo Anthony
Not Yet Rated