Rat Film


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Rat Film
"Though it's not altogether successful, it incorporates some fascinating material."

There are an estimated 38,000 rats in Baltimore. They've been a problem for its human residents for as long as the city has existed, but the reasons for that are complicated. Documentarian Theo Anthony suggests it's unfair to lay all the blame at the door of the rodents. He also sees the rat and human populations as having a lot in common. This film is his attempt to weld together disparate ideas about the subject, and though it's not altogether successful, it incorporates some fascinating material.

An adult male Norwegian rat can jump 32 inches high, we are told at the outset. Baltimore trash cans are 34 inches high. Many rats are smart enough to pile things up and jump from the top of them, but there's relatively little on that aspect of this fascinating species; what we do get is an illustration of the extent to which they have influenced the city's development. This is a history of little things, however. When it comes to the biggest thing - the planning of the city's residences - history shows us a series of disasters. This film explores the way that zoning policies inspired by a combination of racism and clumsy economic thinking created poverty traps from which humans could not escape, and which produced ideal environments for rats.

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Studies exploring human population dynamics have often used rats as subjects, and one of the most famous is considered here, looking at the impact of overcrowding, the creation of hierarchies, and the violence that goes with it. Anthony parallels this with one of the city's hidden treasures, a collection of miniature dioramas commemorating real life crime scenes and, in the process, capturinng the lifestyles and living spaces of its poorest residents. It's easy to imagine how rats would utilise these tiny spaces with their comfortable beds and useful storage spaces; easy, also, to imagine them scurrying through them in real life, carrying their burden of disease, taking and contaminating the food supplies of those already living hand to mouth.

Obliterate these environments, various experts suggest, and you obliterate the rat problem (perhaps a good part of the murder problem, too). But that means making room for the people who live in them elsewhere, ceasing to treat them as vermin. Anthony is interested in the voices of these people, in how they deal with the infestation issue. Here, they share one of the rodents' best responses to pressure: inventiveness. Strikingly charismatic rat control worker Harold Edmund - the sort of character who deserves a film of his own - talks poisons and traps. Two other men show us how they go fishing for rats, lines danging down into the alleys, baited with peanut butter. Another shows off the extensive collection of projectile weapons he uses to take out rodent intruders in his yard. "I can get headshots wth this one," he says proudly, assuring us that the rats feel no pain - and next to poison, he's probably right.

We see little of rats as companions. A man plays a flute whilst one, perchaded on his shoulder, sways to the music and another objects. We see a rat-proofed room where exercise can be enjoyed without the risk of escape, and wonderfully complicated cage. Elsewhere, we see rats as laboratory animals. Their brains shrink when life is easy for them, we are told; but perhaps what's meant is, when life isn't very stimulating. This is another misunderstanding which had tragic results when extended to humans.

The documentary is framed by a video game which seems designed to encourage the player to think about urban planning. We are invited to imagine Baltimore being scrapped, scrubbed out to make way for something new. Up on a hill, human residents watch. But where have all the rats gone? One thinks of pied pipers, and what comes after.

Reviewed on: 11 Sep 2017
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A documentary about the history of Baltimore, told by the rats who make up most of its mammalian population.

Director: Theo Anthony

Writer: Theo Anthony

Starring: Theo Anthony, Dan Deacon

Year: 2016

Runtime: 82 minutes

Country: US


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