Baltimore has a lot of rats.
We hate rats. We hate them so much that we wrongly blame them for the bubonic plague. It feels natural to use rats, as in the idiom “I smell a rat,” to symbolize an unknown evil. Baltimore filmmaker Theo Anthony uses this visceral response as a provocative jumping-off point for his documentary Rat Film. Careful not to use too heavy a hand, the film begins with the scripted recitation of the rat’s creation myth, and then slowly draws visual and thematic parallels over the course of its brief 82 minutes. Treating didacticism like (forgive me) the plague, Anthony carves out a refreshing space in the nonfiction world, even if his film would have benefited from a bit more clarity.
The story is both straightforward and impossibly complex. Basically: Baltimore has a lot of rats. They invade yards, populate alleys and cause problems throughout the city. Baltimore also has a damning history of racism. In 1911, it was the first city in America to pass a law under the guise of “racial niceties” that prohibited black families from moving into predominantly white neighborhoods, and white families from moving into predominantly black ones.
These threads sit side by side as Anthony takes us through a series of vignettes that add up to an artful oral history of Baltimore’s racial politics. We follow an exterminator named Edmund as he crisscrosses the city to answer the calls of rat-encountering citizens. “It ain’t never been a rat problem in Baltimore, it’s always been a people problem,” he says in a rare on-the-nose moment that works in spite of itself. “And that ain’t gonna change until you educate the people.” We hear about Johns Hopkins grad Dr. Curt P. Richter, who aided federal anti-rat programs during WWII and extrapolated some questionable social theory from his experiments. In one excruciatingly long single take, we watch a bald Baltimore resident sit stone-still while three busy rats climb him like a pale, bony jungle gym.
Rat Film—surprise—is most effective when it’s talking about rats. Anthony uses the recurring image of a Norway rat jumping toward the camera from the bottom of a trash can to punctuate certain sections, and the way he captures its movement shoulders the film’s entire subtext. In general, the rat stuff works because it’s so subtext-heavy. A scene where a local snake trainer discusses the types of baby rats he prefers to feed his snakes, which ends with him observing, “The way I look at it, the same creator created ‘em,” lets Anthony make a million sociological points without a single statistic.
Not that the more traditional documentary stuff doesn’t work. It’s just that: traditional. Anthony squeezes in some truly compelling interviews, and historical tidbits about housing policy and Baltimore’s public fund allocations are meaty and fascinating. We’ve seen stories like that before, though, and in these more straightforward moments we lose the novelty of watching a documentary that requires the same critical reading skills as an AP Lit text.
The film pulls off a balancing act that could have spelled disaster in less assured hands. Too much metaphor makes for a snoozy MoMA reject, too much social policy and it’s C-SPAN with some rodents. Neither one would be remotely watchable. If, when the film ends, we’re left scratching our heads a bit, asking for clearer answers to rise to the top, it’s all the more to Anthony’s credit. Rat Film is an out-there proposition, but it’s compelling enough to hold your attention until the end.