Filmmaker and photographer Theo Anthony's 2015 short film "Peace in the Absence of War" was a spare snapshot of tragic irony, contrasting the crowded media and military spectacle around Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray with the route, unpopulated and ignored, on which Gray was killed by police in a van.
With "Rat Film," Anthony ups the ante on these distinctions. Be it rat poison or segregation laws, Baltimore is a city of firsts with national implications that gets treated like a last unless someone wants the National Guard to shut down a protest. Using every format at his disposal, Anthony pieces together a history of rat extermination and systemic racism, methods for both pioneered in Baltimore in a way that, the film suggests, is of no mere coincidence.
Initially, the film was just supposed to be a short about rats around Baltimore, and slowly began growing into a meditation on the variable meaning rats have depending on the race/class status of the person interacting with them. For residents of predominantly black areas of lower economic status, it generally means an infestation problem exacerbated by poor infrastructure. Residents talk of not being able to hang clothes to dry as rats will chew through them. Two enterprising men get a fishing pole, peanut butter, and turkey to devise a contraption for catching rats in sites of large infestation, which they then take care of with a baseball bat. Meanwhile, for some of the wealthy white residents in the film, the pests are more like pets, creatures they can watch movies with or serenade with a flute. One person, calling himself the "rat czar," makes weapons to hunt rats—not as a solution to an overwhelming problem, but as a mere hobby.
After turning one corner too many, Anthony ended up in the files of Johns Hopkins University and found a connection worthy of an Ishmael Reed conspiracy, layering the film further. Mainly, university research on rat extermination and race-related social control were mutually beneficial. In the 1910s, Baltimore introduced an ordinance to segregate housing into black blocks and white blocks. When overturned by the courts, the city resorted to trumped-up code violations to enforce it by other means. In 1937, a "residential security map" was created that helped place poor, black, and "mixed" areas in redlined districts to be excluded from loans that would otherwise help migration to better parts of the city. Johns Hopkins, conveniently, was located in close proximity to one of these neighborhoods. For anyone still reeling from the false binary of Trump versus scientists presented at the March for Science, Anthony helpfully details at least one way the field has been co-opted to enhance the same civil liberties violations the current administration is amplifying to 11.
In 1942 (not mentioned in the film, but the same year when the Final Solution was decided upon), the U.S. feared the enemy would resort to germ warfare, using rats as a weapon. Since the source for rat poison was only found in Axis-controlled areas the U.S., scrambling to find a new serum, recruited Dr. Curt Richter, a psychobiologist at Johns Hopkins working on genetic research using rats. With grants from both the city and the Rockefeller foundation, and with a formula that was allowed to bypass federal inspection, the poison was field tested on the predominantly black neighborhood near the university, "an area frequently used for public health studies" and, presumably, preserved in its dilapidated state for the same reason. Soon dead rats were lining the streets. The neighborhood's poor infrastructure was designated as a rattrap worth targeting for further research, though the city would not address why the poor infrastructure existed in the first place.
Not content with just a historical context, "Rat Film" moves into a speculative future as well. The narrator, Maureen Jones, speaks with robotic wryness recalling the 2003 doc "The Corporation." We glide through a video game based on a Google map of Baltimore that grows increasingly less useful and more ominous the closer it gets to realistic simulation. Feigning respect for privacy, the invasive surveillance photography on Google Earth attempts to blur faces, but has trouble distinguishing between humans and inanimate objects. The more one attempts to overlay real photos over the digital simulation, the more the game glitches. The closer one gets to vacant lots and abandoned homes, cracks appear and the universe is glimpsed in the openings. It's an apt metaphor, where reducing populations to an algorithm that can be overlaid with a map is unwieldy and prone to failure. We also learn Maryland was the site of ethologist John Calhoun's "Behavioral Sink," a year-and-a-half-long study of rats in a contained area that gave insight into the effects of overcrowding in urban spaces. The findings? Societal collapse.
Darting from essayistic historiography to ruminative cyber-simulation to traditional interviews with residents directly affected by Baltimore's rat population, Anthony's methodology recalls in some ways Chris Marker's cyberpunk classic "Level Five," where Marker weaved together a fake WWII computer game, interviews with experts and survivors, and a melancholic travelogue to argue that advances in technology can't salvage the psychic and material damage done by war. "Rat Film" darts through multiple modes of analysis to examine how the damage still being done by structural violence remains largely ignored.
A maze with no out, the problems exposed here will only be exacerbated by policy as it currently stands.
"Rat Film," directed by Theo Anthony, screens on May 4 at 7:25 p.m., May 5 at noon, and May 6 at 10 p.m. in Parkway 1.