Rat Film, a riveting new feature by Theo Anthony, plunges into the dark recesses of Baltimore’s rat-infested streets; in doing so, it takes its viewers into the gaping breach of socio-economic segregation.
Once upon a time – because all tales innocuously anchor their footprints in reality – Anthony notices a rat desperately trying to jump out of the confinement of a trashcan. This momentary experience soon leads the director into the chaos of the human condition, which the film masterfully begins to explore while an eerily autocratic voice over (Maureen Jones) ushers us into behavioral neuroscience with references to Curt Richter’s experiments compiled into his book: “Rats, Man and the Welfare State”.
A clip from Rat Film, with voiceover by Maureen Jones
Enter Harold Edmond, exterminator – philosopher, as well as a host of characters with a love-hate relationship to the rodents in this uncanny microcosm of our society. Under the spell of the electronic score by Dan Deacon, we are irresistibly drawn into a maze of Google 3D streets adrift with historical and biological research while the director steers away from rationalization and leaves the door open for our own conclusions.
BIRET: What inspired you to do this film?
ANTHONY: When I first heard the sound of a rat trying to escape a trash can, it started haunting me. I then saw an article in the Baltimore Sun about the city’s Rat Rubout pest control program and the documentation of the story started its own growth, and I let it expand. I read about the team and the city employees, underworked and underpaid, about residential segregation, legislation, and the film kept on growing.
BIRET: It would be easy to narrow the focus of this movie on racial segregation, but there is a larger story that unfolds, not only through its symbolic narrative but also with its references to mapping the destiny of undesirable or underprivileged residents.
ANTHONY: Exactly. Rat Film is not a film about race. It tells a particular story, a shared history, it’s part of a larger discussion of an experience, a designated experience.
BIRET: Maps are an integral part of your storytelling. They become a testimony to the emblematic divisions of territory secretly orchestrated decades ago when a team of mapmakers graded the area from green to red depending of its racial homogeneity and economic stability, thus effectively trapping red lined area inhabitants into a “lower grade” existence. When did you first become aware of the red lining demarcations?
ANTHONY: I used to live on Greenmount avenue, a vibrant street which borders against Hopkins University with their professors and students, a sharp example on red lining policies: On one side of the street there are these beautiful homes and on the other side, these boarded up row homes. Within that red line, there is a vastly different life expectancy, different education. I kept this in the forefront of my mind while filming. Baltimore is unique because it has a smaller infrastructure than other cities, however with a similar gradient. This happens everywhere.
BIRET: The city had the world on edge during the civil unrest following the death of Freddy Gray. While you are no stranger to boundaries and upheaval with your work as a journalist for Vice and AFP in the Democratic Republic of Congo, how did these events affect your creative vision for this film?
ANTHONY: I used to tell other people stories through my own lens, stories that were not mine. It was a real emotional catalyst after the uprising following the aftermath of Freddy Gray’s shooting. All of the sudden, the world’s attention was coming to my own backyard, and I realized how little I knew about the city.
The demonstrations turned violent and I took 4000 to 5000 photos. Pharmacies were looted, trash cans on fire. I walked up right to the “riot line”, which is a technical term used by the cops to designate the space between the police force and the protesters, I walked to where they were standing, and took photos. There was a heavy police light; it was surreal, but rooted in reality. I also took photos of the unrest. Later when I was watching the news, I saw the same images used to perpetrate a narrative of violence: “Look at the savages tearing down the neighborhood”. So I decided to focus on the portraits of cops I took instead because I did not want to buy into that narrative. The interesting part is that when I released the photos, they were used by both opposite sides for their own purposes: The Black Lives Matter people shared my photos to advance their point of view, and the Blue Lives Matter people also shared my photos for their own ideologies.
BIRET: Actually, ideology is omnipresent in your film.
ANTHONY: No one likes to feel weak. So what do you do when you are in the midst of chaos, you stick by your ideology. In a sense, these are incomplete photos. I was super zoomed in on the photos, you just see faces. It becomes impossible to deny humanity. In our views of cops, we dehumanize them in those types of situations. Although it is tougher, but it is more work to acknowledge humanity on both sides and instead realize that there is a monstrous system that turns people into soldiers of an ideology imposed upon them. We need to ask ourselves questions: ‘Why is this happening? Why bristle at those who try to address this?’ It is easily identifiable as the villain versus the protagonist, but that’s not the root of the issue.
BIRET: Human and rat’s lives are deliberately intertwined in a framework ruled by a dominant class. From predators to preys, including pet owners who cherish rats and others who feed them to their snakes, you are introducing a plethora of multi-dimensional layers. By choosing a protagonist who is empathetic to the rats he eradicates, you also reveal a two-punch reality that forces us to rethink our biases.
ANTHONY: Edmond lives a paradox with his job: He takes away life but also has respect for it. He is an amazing man. At first he was very shy, but is some sense, “desperate” to be heard. He had a wealth of information about the areas he patrolled, and when he opened up, he was very generous with his life story and his wisdom.
BIRET: His character is definitely compelling, as you end up asking him if rats go to heaven! This could have easily bordered on the ridicule, but then he offers a poignant insight into the lives of “people with no dreams, no aspiration, no survival”, and their distress becomes evident: “No one educated here trying to make it to Beverly Hills. How did this happen? What did I do wrong?”
ANTHONY: Edmond reflects on the desperation of the individuals. He actually acknowledges that there are no good or bad humans, that they are complex and can do stupid things when they are not given opportunities to change. He is not overly cynical, but he took the story on a spiritual level.
BIRET: Most notable in your film is the use of stock footage from the Casey Barn experiments conducted by American ethologist John B. Calhoun, who built “housing quarters” to study an imploding population of rats. The conclusions of his studies are comparable with the grim reality of people living in cities affected by similar urban planning: Alienation, parental incompetence, perversion and violence. He was able to prove that one of the most daunting effects was a psychological control of the individual resulting in “submissiveness to restraint”.
“Behavior of Wild Norway Rats,” 1957. US Army Psychology Training Film; John B. Calhoun
ANTHONY: The anti-pests campaigns and anti-poverty campaigns had a very similar approach in their strategy. Their urban planning map had clear racial undertones, which seems related to the field of eugenics from the twenties and thirties, along with birth control and urban planning.
BIRET: By controlling social interaction and sexual reproduction, eugenics studies aimed at the time to institute a new social order.
ANTHONY: It’s a very racist ideology that is similar of the Nazi party. Willard J. Hoyt for example ranked 10 races as the most intelligent races. It was a pseudoscience that also used the measurement of skulls to determine systemic conditioning and subjective human flaws to get imprinted on designs that aren’t really acknowledged. The results of these studies are still in use in our cities today.
BIRET: The myth of a rat that brought light into a dark world by nibbling the egg is an interesting way to introduce the chaos that eventually backfires.
ANTHONY: I believe in creating myths. There is a mythic framework to my films. This film becomes a myth of its own existence.
The creation myth of The Egg
BIRET: While the trip to the Forensic Museum has no apparent connection with rats, we are guided through displays of unsolved crimes scenes. Did you incorporate this experience as a way to distance yourself from the historical and scientific narratives?
ANTHONY: The information is used to navigate to that gap between what we’re told and what you are seeing. It’s a point in exercise, like looking though a small mouse hole into the inner working of the film.
BIRET: Your style of storytelling is reminiscent of the films of Chris Marker. By alternating the use of mundane footage with major discoveries related to social sciences, you are creating a pulse that is pulling the viewer into a web of revelations concerning social pathology. At what point did you decide to use the distortion of 3D maps imagery?
ANTHONY: I was editing the film in a cabin in the woods for a residency and didn’t have enough B-roll. I wandered Google maps for hours, which helped me distance myself from Baltimore. It created at the same time a sense of distance and immediacy that works great for this story. I am also a big fan of Chris Marker.
BIRET: Intercutting sequences and using a wide range of music genre, from classical during the introduction of the “creation myth”, to rap music at the end, accentuated the correlation between time and space. Sound effects such clicking or blipping also added a sense of an implacable timeline. Can you describe your experience working with Deacon?
Dan Deacon and Theo Anthony discuss the making of Rat Film’s score.
ANTHONY: I’ve been going to his shows since I was 15 or 16. Both his parents were exterminators. I showed him a cut of the film, and he offered his help. He wrote down a bunch of tracks matching specific scenes. I re-assigned these tracks to different areas of the film, but it would not work until I edited music to fit the mythical structure of the storyline. At the end, there was equilibrium.
BIRET: Did you choose a narration track to hint at an ominous Orwellian threat?
ANTHONY: I avoided voice over for the longest time, because I didn’t like how it represents the voice of God. The breakthrough voice could have also ended up being something that sabotaged itself. Then it became unavoidable, as a subjective agenda of objectivity.
BIRET: What was your experience as a white director filming in predominantly black neighborhoods? Was it difficult to get people to open up to you?
ANTHONY: I filmed mostly alone, and of course did not go in with a big camera and crew. Sometimes I had the help of a friend, but the majority of times, I filmed alone. I went in with my own ideas of structure of film, but decided to remain very open and to work with empathy.
BIRET: The last scene of film is almost unbearable to watch. Observing a baby rat slowly devoured by a snake while listening to a voice over pondering about the young animal’s ability to dream of a better future offers us little hope to escape the matrix.
ANTHONY: It’s a story-based film; it’s how the world is. The horrific part is that it’s not science fiction.
BIRET: Everything stays the same, at least in this repetitive pattern. Regardless of the implementation of a “new Baltimore”, historically dated maps superimposed over each other uncover the deliberate stagnation plaguing economic renewal, and extermination only repeats a cycle that helps support the established order.
ANTHONY: If we are going to build the city again, why not acknowledge the past, the false characterizations, and examine our own expectations, which is going to make you feel more uncertain, and perhaps a little more nervous. The real important work is what comes next. Films that don’t show that are dangerous.
BIRET: What are you currently working on?
ANTHONY: My new film is also set in technology, vision and power. It’s a continuing conversation. Rat Film was the entry point into a longer conversation about an abstract questions: How the tools we use to frame reality hold different agendas of power, and what we see through the tools we use.
BIRET: Are you referring to the use of the personal information shared by our decisions and preferences that can be saved and stored with modern technology?
ANTHONY: Right now, I am in the research phase. This new film is going deeper. It’s a deconstruction.