(The 2017 SXSW Film Festival opened on March 10 and runs all week until March 18. HtN has you covered and GUARANTEE more coverage than any other site! Check out this review of Rat Film, a documentary focusing on Baltimore’s rat problem.)
An exhaustive, though never exhausting, history of Baltimore City’s relationship with its primary rodent, Rat Film offers a mesmerizing mix of straightforward documentary storytelling and experimental elements. From the interview with an exterminator who proclaims “Ain’t never been no rat problem in Baltimore, but there’s a people problem,” to the repeated use of an animated video-game map of the city, to shots of rats kept as pets, the movie blends a variety of techniques as it weaves its fascinating cinematic tapestry. We follow self-designated rat hunters, keepers of snakes, and a forensic crime-scene trainer, and also meet, in archival footage, the Johns Hopkins specialists of yore who engaged in a vigorous mid-20th-century debate about the proper way to reduce the rat population. The one constant theme is that wherever there are poor and disenfranchised humans, there thrives the rat. Properly manage economic conditions, and you solve your problem. Easier said than done.
This is Baltimore-based artist Theo Anthony‘s debut feature, and he reveals himself a brashly confident filmmaker, never afraid to take creative chances in his pursuit of his narrative vision. I love the way he returns, time and again, to overhead maps of the city that reveal how the zoning decisions made in 1911 – based on racial segregation –have had an enduring impact on poverty, crime and density of rat habitats. Once we learn this, and then watch people prowling desolate streets at night with baseball bats, fishing poles and peanut butter (“rat fishing,” it’s called), it’s difficult not to wonder at the bureaucratic cruelty of past urban planners whose resolutions have led us here. And though the movie is set entirely in “Charm City,” it’s clear that these problems are not endemic to one metropolitan area, alone (no more than HBO’s The Wire is a profile of things that could only happen in Baltimore … which it is not).
I also really like the voiceover by Maureen Jones, who serves, throughout, as our audio guide. She speaks in a near monotone, almost as if Anthony had directed her to sound as much like the mechanized voice of Siri as possible, thereby lending simultaneous familiarity and emotional detachment to the proceedings. At the same time, however, there’s a hint of dry wit beneath the surface, as if she and Anthony realize the potential absurdity of this approach. Ultimately, since the subject matter is, in fact, rather grim, this technique, and its attendant dramatic irony, serves the story well, and not infrequently drew a wry chuckle from my lips. Rat Film is a powerful amalgam of information and art, and I look forward to seeing more work from this filmmaker in the future.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)