There must be something in the air, or even the sewers, that makes the humble rat ripe for documentary investigation. After Moragan Spurlock’s sardonic play on horror tropes and the global response to rats that came out last year, we are now granted with another, very different look at the rodents that scurry about in our urban environments.
In many ways the title Rat Film undercuts its own scope, for the film is far more impressive than a simple look at a bunch of naked-tailed creatures. The film deftly ties several disparate parts – modern extermination procedures, historical ideas of city planning, and systemic discrimination – into a powerful rumination on the complex history of Baltimore.
Any student of David Simon’s works knows the city’s history with institutions is particularly complex, with corruption, class-warfare and the echoes of slavery continuing to cast shadows centuries after the city’s founding. The film tracks contemporary city employees that work to abate the plague and educate the populace, while others take on an urban hunting posture, with one using BB guns and blowdarts to attack the animals in his backyard, to one particularly sanguine pair who, armed with fishing rod, turkey, peanut butter and a baseball bat, look to forlorn alleyways for their nightly prey.
At the same time this look at vermin is tied to medical research at the famed local Johns Hopkins University, looking at the development of poisons that affect only the rats, or psychological experiments about how overcrowding leads to acts of barbaric violence. These additional facets, where the rats seem perfect representatives not only for physiological medical research but for psychological examination of the life of the underclass, that gives the film much of its bite.
With laconic narration and deeply effective balance between the surreal and the sobering, the film echoes closely the works of Werner Herzog. The political message is a powerful one, and by directly tying the segregation that continues to transpire in the city between rich and poor, often connected as much to race as to class, the film raises a potent message. The film feels also akin to the kind of philosophical and historical examinations that Michel Foucault accomplished with the likes of Discipline and Punish or the History of Sexuality series, managing in sophisticated ways to tie disparate small elements of demography, pest control, political machinations and other forces at work in the city, resulting in an enormously complex intertwining where the metanarrative is one that both fascinates and educates.
Rat Film is a rare breed, a film as insightful and ambitious as it is entertaining. With its overt political message the film nonetheless avoids any sense of proselytizing, finding through its gentle pace a way of delving deeply into its subject matter. Its mix of interviews, historical accounts and verité is equally complex, with its own disparate parts coming together elegantly.
Theo Anthony’s debut is a revelation, showing that non-fiction filmmaking can fulfill in a way that few works of cinema can, that ambition can be rewarded and the scope of a work can be allowed to expand without losing its central focus. It’s a visually compelling work that’s highly cinematic, yet it’s the depth of its ideas and cleverness of its mission that truly speaks to its greatness. There’s so much to cherish about Rat Film, from its rich constellation of ideas through to its deft execution, making this easily one of the great documentaries of the year.