Could there be a more generic title for a documentary film about rats than director Theo Anthony’s Rat Film? But this title perfectly expresses the straightforward, nothing-too-squeamish or off-putting approach to this film, the Winner of Best Documentary Feature in the 2017 Florida Film Festival. The director addresses a potentially repellent topic — with hardly any box office appeal — with a fascinating, though sometimes jumbled, blend of geography, anthropology, ethnology and biology. We begin to see rats in a somewhat different light.
So many movies have featured rodents with an animated anthropomorphic approach (Ratatouille, An American Tail, The Great Mouse Detective, hey, even Steamboat Willie, ad nauseum), or an occasional nod to the grosser rat kingdom with Willard and Ben, a bit more sociopathic and violent, and markedly not animated.
Right now, even as I type this review of Rat Film, I have tree rat traps set in the garage and three more outside, all laced with peanut butter, Peter Pan crunchy, a proven Pied Piper-worthy attraction known to lure unsuspecting citrus rats to their quick, neck-breaking death. In the middle of the night, when rodents prowl, comes the clattering sound of a pop and a snap as the unforgiving trigger and spring-loaded bar do their work.
Forgive my breathless description of my rat-control rat patrol, but this compelling film about this repugnant topic brings out my hunter instinct. Indeed, it is man against Nature, and for a very long time, Nature, as in the rat population, has been winning. Though rats have proven to be one of the most ancient scourges to human existence, at the same time they are a species ideally suited to serve mankind. Disease, destruction and disgust follow in their wake, even as scientists and social scientists turn to the rat to test new, unproven medicines, and as the ideal medium for studying human populations.
Try to move beyond your initial repulsion to rats — or rat phobia, known as murophobia, coined from adjective “murine” (think canine, feline, ursine, etc.) for rat family Muridae — and watch the full 82 minutes of rat lore, rat love and rat loathing. This feature-length documentary examines rats and the people who hate them, love them, live with them, study them, play with them, kill them, all set in Baltimore, a city whose racist housing policy created its particular rat problem and now must live with it.
The film opens with an eye-catching, eye-popping even, close-up of a rat in a tall garbage can, leaping again and again, trying to escape. The voice-over narrator by Maureen Jones — all icy and sober with PBS-like gravitas — tells us that the adult male rat can jump, straight up, 32”. Garbage cans issued by the Baltimore city government are 34”. It seems to be a lost cause. This is a metaphor that will continue throughout the documentary. Dan Deacon's original score — electronic and disquieting — adds to the quirky, absurdist, time-out-of-joint, I-can't-believe-I'm-watching-a-movie-about-rats feel of this film.
Across walls, fences and alleys, rats not only expose our boundaries of separation but make homes in them. Can we ever co-exist?
But as Harold Edmond, professional rat trapper in Baltimore, tells us, almost gleefully, “There’s never been a rat problem in Baltimore. It’s always been a people problem.” Indeed, it has been estimated that the rat population equals or surpasses the human population (650,000) of Baltimore, and apparently many of these human residents spend an inordinate amount of time tracking the rats and trying to vanquish them.
As Edmond works his way through the city, placating concerned citizens and poisoning rats, his efforts are joined by dozens of others on the self-styled rat patrol who spend many hours and much energy trying to figure out just what do rats want. Then the rat brigade laces that rat-want with poison or fish hooks or baseball bats or anything to capture and annihilate them.
Perhaps the most fascinating and disturbing aspect of this unusual documentary is sociological as Anthony (named as one of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film”) uses a series of superimposed maps to illustrate the city’s rat problem as a direct effect of Baltimore’s economic and racial segregation. This is a shameful history with unintended consequences leading to huge pockets of urban decay and blight which the rats call home. In another remarkable piece of filmic whiz-bang from the documentary filmmaker’s arsenal, he provides a virtual reality simulation of what the city must look like from a rat’s perspective — the city as maze — reminding us, of course, of all those lab experiments with mice and rats trying to find their way to the cheese. It’s a brief step from rats-in-a-maze to overpopulated rats-in-a-maze to overpopulated humans-in-a-maze. We learn from the famous experiment in the 1950s that such conditions lead to “asexual cannibalistic rats preying on their abandoned young.” Pathological rat behavior was studied to determine just how much space is necessary for populations — rat and humans — to survive and thrive.
The great value of this unique, and occasionally quirky, documentary is Anthony’s connection of systemic racist urban policy with an out-of-control rat population. His jagged and trenchant criticism of modern city life, with its horror movie-worthy scenes of rats marching on us in a never-ending army, reveals as much about institutionalized segregation and housing red-lining as it does our age old conflicts with Rattus norvegicus.
The repugnant treatment of despised populations seems ongoing.
Lest it all seem to be a heavy-handed exploration of Rats, Man, Pathology and the Welfare State, Anthony will briefly launch into a wistful, existential examination of rats as part of creation myths and wondering whether blind rats dream of food or whether there are rats in heaven. There's occasional light-hearted charm in his documentary as he blends interviews, cinema verite photography, archival footage, even sci-fi simulation. But during many of these segments, I wished for Baltimore film director John Waters — known for his edgy, weird and transgressive approach — to make an appearance with his own unique approach to Baltimore and rats. But he never showed up.
Viewer alert: the final scene is harrowing: a caged snake stalks (can snakes stalk? never mind) a blind, hairless, almost transparent, baby rodent, totally enveloping the helpless rat in its increasingly spread-open jaws, till the prey is totally swallowed whole and twitching down the snake’s gullet. Metaphor? Tragedy? Caution? Prediction?
Let me go check my traps.
Ben Wiley is a retired professor of film and literature at St. Petersburg College. He also was on staff in the Study Abroad Office at University of South Florida as statewide Director of the Florida Consortium/University of Cambridge (UK) International Summer Schools. His interests are in film, books, theatre, travel, literacy programs, kayaking Florida rivers. Contact him here.