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.
So begins Rat Film, the dazzling documentary debut from Baltimore native Theo Anthony. Rat Film takes a deep dive through the history of Baltimore’s city planning and the atrocities that bigotry in that arena has perpetrated on the city’s Black population. We also meet a host of current day characters: an exterminator with unusual affection for his prey, a group of men who go hunting for rats at night with baseball bats, and a man with so many pet rats he’s had to kit out his basement to protect his furniture.
The strands of this film are knitted together with an icy, almost robotic narration from Maureen Jones. Though her voice sounds detached, the words she speaks are wonders; in turn mystical and deadly serious, and preoccupied with existential questions that have plagued humanity since the beginning of time.
Rat Film is a piece that hums with meaning, history, and personality. It deserves a proper exploration. So let’s get into it…
Rats And A Whole Lot More
Whilst Rat Film is about a lot more than rats, it is still about rats. And whatever you think of the rodents before this film, by the time it has finished, you’ll feel warmer towards them. One of the earliest images we see is a rat stuck in a trash can. It is jumping like crazy, but never quite managing to escape. The dispassionate voiceover tells us that rats have an average jumping capacity of 32 inches. Baltimore’s trash cans are 34 inches tall. The rat’s plight is hopeless.
Rat Film is dense with historical detail, and through the film we learn of the horrendous treatment of rats throughout history. During World War 2, they were considered by the Germans as a potential way of spreading the bubonic plague amongst American citizens. This led to experimentation in Baltimore to deduce the best poison for large-scale rat extermination. In 1957, rats were used in nightmarish experiments investigating the results of overcrowding, which would come to be known as ‘behavioural sink’. Amongst the rats, the violent results included cannibalism.
And even today, we see various citizens of Baltimore go out on special rat disposal missions with weapons like blowguns and baseball bats.
What makes Rat Film special, however, is not its focus on rats, as interesting as it may be. It’s the way it seamlessly links the treatment of rats to the treatment of Baltimore’s Black population.
We learn early on about the 1911 anti-integration scheme in the city. A quarter century later, this anti-integration effort was codified further, resulting in these Black residents of ‘redlined’ neighbourhoods being officially classed as ‘undesirable’ and unable to receive bank loans and other financial help. And remember those rat poison experiments? Guess where they took place? The redlined neighbourhoods.
Near the film’s conclusion, a 1911 map is put on screen, the redlined neighbourhoods highlighted. Other maps are layered on top, showing various quality of life factors today. We see that the poverty level, life expectancy and unemployment rate is still worst in the redlined neighbourhoods. Nothing has changed, in all that time. Despite the affectless voice of the narrator, it’s a moment that hits you with dramatic force.
Rat Film is a weighty documentary, full of history lessons and politics and big ideas. But it can also be enjoyed on a smaller, less imposing level. The characters that Anthony chose to focus on are fascinating men, with unique ways of expressing themselves.
As mentioned earlier, we meet a variety of men who go on special expeditions in order to ‘take out’ rats. Though it seems cruel, these people are still strangely endearing. One man, who has a full artillery his disposal, seems like a little boy as he proudly shows off his weaponry to the camera. Another makes up an impromptu rap, violent, but funny nonetheless. A taster:
I want to hit them with a baseball bat
But I don’t have one right now.
All this violence around rats may seem disquieting, but according to some of the citizens of Baltimore, the rats are akin to an army. A wide-eyed interviewee describes one of the rats he’s seen recently as the length of one and a half beer cans and ‘that’s just the body from the head to the ass’. The ‘tail reminds [him] of an iguana’. With respect in his eyes, the man talks about rats he’s seen ‘covered in nics and shit’ from encounters with cars. ‘Soldiers’.
And some of the people we meet in the film actively love rats. There’s this man of course, Rat Film‘s very own pied piper:
Later on we meet a man who has turned the basement of his house into a huge run for his rats. He’s covered all his electronics in order to protect both the rats from electrocution and his appliances from the rats. Their cage is enormous, but the man lets them have free range of the whole floor. Like the pied piper, he is bald, and the rats like sitting on his head whilst he watches TV with his girlfriend.
We meet other people too, and they all have a story to tell. Whatever you think of the documentary as a whole, the engaging characters alone make it worth watching.
And in a film brimming with characters, Harold Edmond is the most compelling. An exterminator with Baltimore’s ‘Rat Rubout’ programme, who’s been rubbing out rodents for decades, Edmond has an almost extra-sensory relationship to the rats.
For someone whose life work has been killing them, Edmond has a deep affection for rats. There’s a pragmatic reason for this, of course. “I love them, they put food on my table.” He says, to a lady who’s clearly disgusted at the rodents. Sometimes Edmond seems to prefer rats to people – “There ain’t never been a rat problem in Baltimore. It’s always been a people problem. And that ain’t gonna change until you educate the people.”
Watching Edmond educate the people is both illuminating and entertaining. One woman is at her wits end; she has been putting peanut butter on her rat-traps, but they don’t seem to be falling for it anymore. Edmond explains that the rats are canny enough to work out what happens to them when they eat peanut butter, and have been steering well clear. She decides to move to barbecue sauce.
You don’t hear Anthony‘s voice much in Rat Film, but one question you hear him ask seems facetious: ‘Do rats go to heaven?’ Edmond’s answer gives you an idea of both the depth of the man, and the scope of the documentary:
“I don’t believe there’s a heaven, I really don’t. I believe that it’s crazy to live a lifetime, and gather all that information and then just cease to exist. I think that the spirit part might go somewhere near some type of collective. But I don’t think that you live a lifetime and then just expire and then that’s the end, I don’t believe that. As far as a heaven or hell… no I’m not going to get spooky with all that God this and that, I’m not gonna do that to myself, no I’m not.”
Edmond is so charming and interesting; he’s the kind of person that you could happily listen to for hours. It tells you something about how good Rat Film is, that he is just one of the film’s manifold delights.
It’s easy enough to explain the history that we witness in Rat Film, or the various characters that we meet. What’s harder is conveying the dream-like atmosphere that binds it all together.
A lot of it has to do with Maureen Jones’ narration. Though she is largely affectless, her voice has a mellifluous tone, that make her perfect for narrating such a lyrical documentary. And it’s in the soundscape too. Anthony has collaborated with fellow Baltimorean, electronic musician and composer Dan Deacon, to create an industrial soundscape that’s both otherworldly and a little bit intimidating. Some sections bear comparison to David Lynch‘s sound design on Twin Peaks: The Return.
It isn’t just in the presentation though, but some of the content. Whilst a lot of the people we meet and the things that we see are easy to fit into Anthony‘s thesis about Baltimore’s mistreatment of African Americans, others are less so. Because the film isn’t didactic, these seemingly ill-fitting pieces will be different for different viewers. Personally, I struggled to square the images of Nascar and the crime staging scenes with the rest of the movie. You may watch and understand that perfectly, but miss something else.
The point is, it’s not all that important. Anthony has carved out an ocean-like film that pulls you along in the riptide. If everything was perfectly understandable on the first viewing, it would take away the intrigue that makes Rat Film so appealing. As it is, I was happy to be pulled along in the current.
Rat Film: Conclusion
Who would have thought that a documentary about Baltimore’s rat problem could be so captivating? Anthony has taken what seems like the most prosaic of subjects and run with it to create a unique and fascinating documentary. Though Rat Film’s style may be dream-like, its central message is succinct and unambiguous.
Even if you find the documentary’s unusual presentation annoying, or its icy narration distancing, then you still have the characters. From the man who describes the size of a rat he saw with as much excitement and poetry as if he’d just seen a tiger wandering down the streets of Baltimore, to Harold Edmond the erudite exterminator, Anthony has populated his film with offbeat personalities. On the most basic level, it’s great to just listen to them talk.
Rat Film is a riveting documentary that delivers its message in mesmeric, bewitching style. That it is Anthony‘s debut is astounding. I will be waiting eagerly for his follow up.
What did you think of Rat Film? Which documentaries would you consider comparable?
Rat Film is released in New York and Baltimore on 15th September. For all future release dates, click here.