Rat Film (2017; Theo Anthony)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, October 27, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
Director Anthony makes his feature debut with this unconventional documentary about the persistent rat problem in Baltimore, as well as the connections between the thriving vermin and the city’s long history of racist zoning laws.
Rather than the usual deadening context of talking-head interviews, Anthony follows several different people devoted to killing and/or caring for the rats, including a laid-back city exterminator and several amateur hunters with a wide array of weapons, everything from a dart-spewing blowgun to a fishing line and a baseball bat. Meanwhile, an omniscient female narrator intersects with historical insights on the local housing laws that segregated the black (and rat) population in unhealthy ghettoes, as the well as the connection between rats (and black people) and social/medical research, including studies conducted by Johns Hopkins University in inner-city Baltimore.
Rat Film tackles an unusual and complex subject in an original and engrossing manner, although the oversimplified [rats = black people] metaphor is somewhat offensive. Anthony really falters when he reaches for Herzog-ian fascist-humanist fantasy-babble in the final segment, imagining a dream scenario where Baltimore-ians gather to celebrate the destruction of their city, with plans to randomly re-distribute the lots (of smoldering ash, I guess) at “corner stores.” Whatever.