Director Theo Anthony draws parallels: between statistics and hunches, between logistics and subtext, between the systemic and the everyday, between the drama of history and the total lack of histrionics required to support his 100-year-old post-apocalyptic vision of institutionalized racism. This vision is Rat Film, Anthony’s brilliant docu-essay chronicling Baltimore’s city planning and resultant systemic segregation as a microcosm of the still-failing American Urban Experiment.
In it, first we hear a voice (Maureen Jones, siri-adjacent). Amidst stark black, before we see anything we hear: “Before the world became the world it was an Egg. Inside the Egg was Dark. The rat nibbled the egg and let the Light in. And the world began.” From these first moments, Rat Film introduces the idea of creation—from whatever mythos Anthony culled this intro—not as an expansion, a pushing out, but as an illusion of growth hiding something so much more claustrophobic, so much more suffocating. Rat Film is ostensibly about Baltimore’s rat problem, about how the City has historically dealt with and studied and used parts of their poorest neighborhoods to address pest control, trial-and-erroring over decades, but as Edmund the amicable exterminator with the Baltimore City Rat Rubout Program tells us, “There ain’t never been a rat problem in Baltimore; there’s always been a people problem.”
This is the parallel Anthony most wants to explore, how systems of power treat minority and impoverished communities as lab rats, expendable and experimental. The path he treads wanders wildly—his film a weaving, loosely tracked tone poem, its free form in direct opposition to the boundaries and strictures imposed on the aforementioned communities, human and rodent alike—but his themes are always clear, and the points he makes always buttressed by simple, unadorned facts. When he couples a near-nauseous digital video of a rat attempting to escape a trash can in a back alley with voice-over monotoning, “The adult Norway rat can jump 32 inches high. Baltimore city trash cans are 34 inches high,” we understand, precisely, Anthony’s logic. Baltimore is a city built to sequester, and in turn neuter, those populations with which it’d rather not deal.
In 1911, we’re told, the City of Baltimore passed a law which essentially divided neighborhoods along racial lines, passing “the nation’s first legislation of its kind.” Six years later, the Supreme Court outlawed such legislation, which only drove the sources behind such segregation further into the private sector‚—where that power always wanted to be anyway. Anthony then details how Baltimore institution Johns Hopkins University utilized such preternatural, physical class distinctions as ready-made laboratories to study rodent populations, especially in the context of rat control. Anthony’s historic documents—photographs, maps, letters, news articles—he wields with Ken Burns-like precision, demonstrating both in-depth research and a journalist’s eye for sussing out the larger ideas behind the cold facts. All of it culminates in a heartbreaking tale of how a Baltimore denizen’s barn was converted into a warehouse space wherein Johns Hopkins scientists built a cloistered rat colony, observing how isolation manifested in a rat community. The results are, of course, devastating—the rats stratified themselves, setting up ersatz social classes and generally massacring the weak, including rat babies—mostly because of how Anthony’s seeded the injustice of anti-miscegenation into his film so that, by the time poindexters in thick-rimmed glasses are smugly grinning, posing next to their sad rat prison, the audience knows exactly what Anthony’s implying.
Alongside his historic through line, Anthony presents vignettes and mini-profiles of Baltimore residents. There’s Edmund, whom we follow on assorted house calls, but there’s also a couple who have a meticulously crafted rat room in their house where their pet rats can roam free, a pair of rat hunters who sit outside of alleyways literally fishing for rats to pulverize with a baseball bat, a standard middle class Millennial who displays his arsenal of rat-murdering weapons, and musician Dan Deacon, who not only provides the film’s (wonderful and, if you’ve ever heard Deacon’s music, unexpectedly unhurried) score, but who we watch composing that score, using rat brain scans in consort with censors converting the movement of rats trapped in transparent plexiglass displays to sound. In these moments with Deacon, we are present for one of the film’s most lasting images: rats, confined, piling into a corner with nowhere to go, escaping apparently nothing but attempting to escape nonetheless.
These many threads and faces and stories wind around one another as Rat Film moves toward a final point—its final point being the same point upon which it started, so anticlimactic and graceful that it hardly bears repeating, only watching, over and over and over. Anthony’s is the rare film that thrives in its parts rather than in the sum of them, though the sum is breathlessly simple, to the extent that one wonders why no film has ever connected the lines—lined up the parallels—as Anthony has. Because that sum is a feeling limned in symbology, a feeling of strangulation, of universes crammed into ill-fitting spaces, taming and domesticating the Other through literally squeezing the life out of them.
Near the end of the film, Anthony returns to a 3-D map of Baltimore he introduced at the beginning of the film, implying how a whole city can be represented in, say, Google Earth, but that once a user attempts to see into the pixelated apartment buildings and crumbling neighborhoods, the program defaults, replacing unknowns with visions of the cosmos. He pushes the camera, the POV, through the walls of a digital building; the floorboards are missing, and in their places is the blackness of space, punctuated by constellations of stars, as if, with nothing in the way, Google Earth has no choice but to stare into the abyss of Space. The image is mundane, but in Anthony’s hands it’s arresting, speaking for the millions of lives displaced by a century of American “progress.” The abandoned house is the Egg, and Anthony’s camera is the rat, nibbling at the edifice, just trying, however futile, to let the light in.
Director: Theo Anthony
Writer: Theo Anthony
Release Date: October 13, 2017
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.