Director Theo Anthony’s documentary Rat Film feels like a lab rat experiment. If it places the viewer in the middle of city images (rats and death), can they find their way out of the maze? In this way, the viewer becomes like a lab rat, and the film echoes this feeling by providing a virtual reality, rat’s-eye view of what it would be like to live in a cage or wander the city.
Rat Film is an essay that weaves together lab rats, housing codes and virtual reality glitches in a way that entwines the history of Baltimore’s rats with the history of Baltimore’s people. By studying the city’s pest control, the film reveals how housing discrimination and city codes of the past contributed to the plights of modern Baltimore. To put it more aptly, as a worker for the city of Baltimore’s pest control said, there’s never been a rat problem — always been a people problem.
The film focuses on the Norway Rat, a common type often used in experiments because its diet is similar to humans and its life span is relatively short (making it ideal for studying effects on its aging and growth). Mirroring the way scientists study the rats, Anthony’s film studies the effects of city growth on the Baltimore residents after segregation ended. But Rat Film shows that when segregation ended as a government policy, its practice continued in the private sector. For example, after studying neighborhoods, banks would only lend money to people who came from predominantly white neighborhoods. This kept the people living in less desirable, mostly black neighborhoods (or redlined neighborhoods) from gaining access to the tools that would improve their communities or help them move away.
Rat Film shows how pest eradication and city codes are tied to this history. When the city needed to test rat poison, it tested it in the redlined areas. By placing images of lab rats so close to images of historically black neighborhoods (where the city tested rat poison), it’s easy to come to the conclusion that the city viewed these citizens as nothing more than lab rats themselves — pests that were easily disposable.
For all of the death the film implies, it holds off on showing rats being killed — for a while. It leans into horror at times, using terrific sound mixing and editing to build tension. When that tension is released and director Anthony finally shows rats being killed by humans or eaten by snakes, Rat Film cuts rapidly between different images of death to create a dynamic, horrifying scene.
But it’s not all death and destruction. Rat Film has jokes and moments that balance the heavy topics with moments of levity. Its best joke opens the film, pairing narration that sounds like a guide in a video game or a digitized feminine voice from artificial intelligence with nighttime images of a rat trapped in a trash can. (The narrator says that rats can jump 32 inches high. The trash can is 34 inches tall.) The film also highlights a family that keeps rats as pets and lovingly provides a place for the rats to be let out to play. The rats are still rats, but the attitude people have about them changes. Rat Film shows how different people come by their different perspectives about the creatures, and therefore how humans come by different perspectives of each other.
Rat Film doesn’t spell out its conclusions, instead allowing the viewer to come to their own upon seeing the images and stories it presents. It’s not a passive film with a straight-through narrative — it asks viewers to grapple with the images and ideas presented. One of the most interesting ideas seems, at first, to have nothing to do with rats at all. Images of dioramas that depict death scenes from unsolved crimes are sometimes used to help train Baltimore investigators. These tiny, intricate models take as long to build and cost as much as building a regular house. The dioramas painstakingly depict how the victims lived, down to water stains from the pipes. By documenting people in their moments of death — people who were not normally documented while they were alive — the dioramas honor their passing, and their life, in much the same way that Rat Film honors animals and people that were often overlooked.
The diorama images aren’t meant to be solved, they are meant to just exist and to be thought about — just like Rat Film itself.
Rae Nudson (@rclnudson) is a writer based in Chicago. She has written for The Billfold, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Esquire and Real Life, and has a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. Rae loves horror and anything with a strong visual point of view, and she often watches the same movie 100 times in a row.