"Rat Film" is a Gothic horror story about the way our government aided and abetted housing segregation in Baltimore via redlining. It's also about rats.
"It ain't never been a rat problem in Baltimore, it's always been a people problem," says impossibly zen rat exterminator Edmond, for whom rat control is not an unsavory gig but a life's calling, at the beginning of the documentary.
Edmond takes thoughtful pride in his job. He loves rats, although his job is to kill them. He resists the tendency to despise the rat, philosophizing instead. Rats, he has noticed, tend to thrive in places where humans struggle: They scavenge through trash-strewn alleyways, subsisting off our waste.
Director Theo Anthony plunges into this idea of rats as a symptom, whirling into a multisensory journey through the philosophic implications of rat control and urban neglect in Baltimore, the city that in the early 20th century pioneered new methods of both pest control and housing segregation, and the bizarre and haunting ways the two intersected. It's a film essay that's part Harmony Korine trash flick, part Chris Marker, and part "The Jinx"-style true crime documentary that posits the rat, as Anthony said to the L.A. Times, as a "vector" across the contradictions, oddities, and inequalities of Baltimore.
We trace the origins of rat control to WWII. "War was declared on the Norway rat," intones the narrator.
In 1941, Dr. Curt Richter, a Hopkins researcher, invented a new type of rat poison, stoked in part by fears the Axis powers were planning to use rats to initiate germ warfare. The poison is tested in Baltimore neighborhoods with the most deteriorated infrastructure, and thus the most pronounced rat infestations—the primarily black neighborhood next to Johns Hopkins Hospital, "an area frequently used for public health studies," presumably a reference to Henrietta Lacks and many other examples of what author Harriet A. Washington called "medical apartheid" in her 2007 book of the same name.
Most of the characters in the film are rat hunters—it's only a matter of scale that separates them. We meet small-time rat hunters, bizarrely passionate rat enthusiasts, and a self-proclaimed "Rat Czar" who seems to love rats as aesthetic garb as much as he does shooting them with his BB guns (you may have seen his "Balt Rat" stickers). Two men sit out in an alleyway and go fishing for rats with peanut butter as bait.
What's clear is that the hatred of the rat is a transposition: The rat is merely a Band-Aid, masking the underlying problem of unsafe housing and substandard living conditions for the mostly poor, mostly black residents of Baltimore.
"Rat Film" is also about the way we approach the governance of cities: Richter and the Hopkins researchers were captivated by an apocalyptic image of urban decay—exemplified by rats—as a problem to be solved by top-down extermination programs that were blithely tested in the city's impoverished African-American neighborhoods. Archive photos of dead rats filling the Baltimore streets take on an apocalyptic quality, and then the film moves tonally into this disturbing parallel. From here its hard not to think of the type of top-down, punitive law-and-order policies (like broken windows policing, for example) still going on as merely another kind of targeted extermination program. The other option is to treat the underlying conditions of the rat infestation (investment in affordable housing, more frequent trash pick up, expansion of social services, etc.).
There are elements of horror, too: smash cuts; a piercing, pulsating ambient score by Dan Deacon; and a level of suspense suitable for a crime thriller. It all brings new life to the visual potential of archival footage, using haunting, close-up sketches of rats being handled, black-and-white photos of scientists at family gatherings, standing over rat cages, to orchestrate a Gothic, science-as-horror narrative. The film paints an eerie picture of these scientists as rat killers with god delusions about reshaping cities and their inhabitants.
In a recurring sequence, we wander through a virtual reality video game of Baltimore streets with graphics so rough and glitchy that it becomes uncanny and frightening to look at. Guided by a chilling robotic narrator (Maureen Jones) who sounds like Siri if she was about to snap and subsequently murder you, these scenes recall, along with Chris Marker's discursive essay films, the dystopian digital aesthetic of works by video artist Jon Rafman, such as "9eyes," a collection of fucked up encounters caught on Google Street View, or "Still Life (Beta Male)," a disgusting dive into the deep web guided by a trance-like voice.
In "Rat Film" the voice describes how a still photo can be pasted onto a digital projection, and cycles through a series of everyday scenes: a mother tying her daughter's shoes, two guys waiting for the bus. The connections between this footage, rats, and redlining are loose, abstract. The tone, however, is consistent. We're witnessing a virtual reality horror sequence, a never-ending game with a negligent creator, a dramatization of the real-life scary story of how bureaucrats and map-makers created urban decay.
We learn about the Home Owner's Loan Corporation, which drafted a secret "residential security map" of Baltimore in 1937, classifying neighborhoods on a scale from green (safe) to red (risky) for government-backed mortgages, solidifying neighborhoods with racial covenants like Roland Park while effectively trapping East and West Baltimore's primarily black residents in impoverished and blighted neighborhoods. "Isn't it nice to think that when it rains, the whole city gets wet?" asks the voice.
Anthony, whose short films include "Peace in the Absence Of War" and "Chop My Money," and who was a Sondheim Finalist in 2016, has also done work for Vice, and here he distills the mild Werner Herzog-like ecstatic truth aesthetic that makes Vice engaging, while avoiding the "sick bro" spectacle gazing of the less self-aware international reports. Here, the focus is less on gnarliness and more toward a poetic, formalist inquiry into the history and psychology of Baltimore's urban filth, and how scientists and bureaucrats have devised grand schemes that more often than not failed, or were never meant to succeed for certain groups of people in the first place.
Nevertheless, there's a shot of a snake eating a naked baby rat whole, which could be a metaphor for a whole lot of things and you get to decide what for yourself—which is pretty sick, I think. Also in the L.A. Times interview, Anthony said he wanted to push back on the "hierarchical" nature of documentary, and he spares us talking heads or chemical formulas, instead focusing on people, ideas, and images to tell the story of rats and people—and how we might have more in common than anyone would like to admit.