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Yes, true to its name, Theo Anthony’s Rat Film (2016) is about the pesky rodent. But it’s also about so much more than that, for it is also a chilling film about the roots of racism in Baltimore engineered while the city was being mapped out. How this is connected to the common rat is what Rat Film sets out to show.
For his first feature-length documentary, Anthony has made a heterogeneous yet seamless work that is a kindred spirit to Chris Marker’s and Adam Curtis’s films such as, respectively, Level Five (1997) and HyperNormalisation (2016). Rat Film falls somewhere between the former’s montage-based, essayistic method and the latter’s use of electronic music to generate unexpected connections that have an air of menace. The film creates a detached, disembodied, but never disengaged approach to the material, an impression generated by Maureen Jones’ flat narration and Dan Deacon’s unusually ominous and entrancing score. It’s a score that complements but doesn’t overwhelm the film. It only asserts its presence in Anthony’s interstitial shots, which allow for a pause between the film’s different sections.
Providing different perspectives to Baltimore’s rat problem, an assortment of people appear before Anthony’s camera: while their friend watches, two weathered men on a bench sing a tune about hating rats (“I wanna hit them with a baseball bat”); a man “hunts” rats with a personal armament of pellet guns; a duo use a fishing rod and a Louisville Slugger; a seasoned exterminator employed by the city dishes out his opinions (“It ain’t never been a rat problem in Baltimore; always been a people problem”) while making a few house calls; a snake handler who uses baby “pinky” rats for food; and a couple of pet owners introduce their rats.
Woven into the film, and supplying its most edifying parts, are the sections in which Anthony shows how Baltimore’s rat infestation and racism originate in and are enmeshed with the city’s historical development.
Illustrating the narrative with archival photography, Anthony begins in 1911, the year in which Baltimore strikes up an ordinance that prevents racial integration. Six years later, the US Supreme Court rules the ordinance unconstitutional, but segregation moves to the private sector. Upscale white neighborhoods form covenants barring black families from home ownership.
Meanwhile, in the field of science, Curt P. Richter, a biologist at John Hopkins, tests a newly formulated rat poison by releasing the rodents into the predominately black slums of Baltimore. In 1933, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation was established. Fourteen mapmakers from the corporation — all white, all men — create the Baltimore Residential Security Map a graded map (green is good, red is bad) that only exacerbates segregation. Through a process known as “redlining”, the mostly black and mixed residents of the red sectors were denied loans, and banks wouldn’t even invest in business ventures in these areas. Redlined neighborhoods stayed red.
In 1951, scientist David E. Davis disputed Richter’s experiments. He argued that killing procedures were tedious, repetitive, and actually increased the rat population. He believed that the rat problem resided in the environment. His experiments led to city blocks being brought up to par on housing codes. It took a scientist and his ecological approach to vermin management to clean up the slums, which was only a collateral effect of the effort to eliminate rat infestation. John B. Calhoun extended Davis’s studies further by setting up a laboratory in a barn house in Gaithersburg, Maryland. In this modified laboratory, Calhoun used rats to study the effects of crowding on social pathology. His findings were revealing: overcrowding led to what he referred to as a “behavioral sink,” a display of pathological behavior, for example, rats became cannibalistic.
Although evident throughout the film, it is here where the film’s implicit meaning comes to the fore: when Rat Film shows how we can predict and map out human behavior, thereby testing the romantic notion of individuality. That’s why we get seemingly unrelated narrative strands, for example, one in which an executive assistant for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner presents Anthony with both miniature and human-scale models of poor and lower-class homes and unexplained deaths that occur within them, which medical examiner trainees use for their training. In another strand, Anthony uses Google Maps to track random people — their faces unrecognizably blurred by the program’s algorithm — walking through Baltimore and caught on camera unawares. One segment shows how people work to rationalize and predict the behavior that leads to death; the other uses the technology that catalogues city spaces and records the manner in which people move about it, thereby foreseeing how heavily trafficked the cityscapes are.
“New maps, old maps, same maps” says the voiceover as we see various maps laid on top of each other — indicating arrests, unemployment, vacant homes below the poverty line, and average life expectancy. The red areas stay red. Theo Anthony is a new voice in contemporary cinema, and unites seemingly unrelated topics, city planning, rats, and racism with Rat Film, a documentary that provides the evidence that the problems of Baltimore’s past are in fact the problems of its present.
Rat Film opened September 15 at Film Society of Lincoln Center (70 Lincoln Center Plaza, Upper West Side, Manhattan).