2017 Film Essays

‘Rat Film’: Light and Dirt, Cinema and Rodents

Theo Anthony, the director and writer of the new documentary Rat Film, bookends the narrative with the following quote: “Before the world became the world, it was an egg. Inside the egg was dark. A rat nibbled the egg and let the light in. And the world began.” The quote may not quite make sense until the end when it resurfaces and can be placed in context with the rest of the film. Rat Film tells the story of bureaucratic oppression on Baltimore’s lower-class and minority citizens, but it does so through the Norway rat. Anthony doesn’t use the rat as a metaphor for humans so much as he shows how Baltimore’s powers-that-be — its scientists, philanthropists, mayors, police force, etc. — have done so, literally creating a city through redlining that allows their hegemony to stay in place.

Anthony gets to the heart of this matter quite imaginatively, combining cinema vérité with historical documents and footage — and, most strikingly, a video-game simulation of Baltimore. In this regard, alongside the voice-over narration provided by Maureen Jones throughout, Rat Film harkens back to Chris Marker’s own genre-breaking documentary, Sans Soleil (1983). There, Marker explored the forgotten histories of Japan and Guinea-Bissau and how these histories resurface in every-day life. Passengers strewn about a boat’s cabin conjures up images of refugees fleeing war. The forlorn faces of citizens watching a procession of burning dolls recalls the last goodbye between a Kamikaze pilot and their lover. The past informs the present.

In an effort to see an unmediated present, Marker turns to his friend Hayao, who runs the former’s images through a video-game render. Dubbed, “The Zone,” a reference to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), Marker’s new images become nearly unrecognizable. Yet, within that unfamiliarity, Marker discovers a freedom that allows him to navigate a history free from time. Technology in Sans Soleil takes over the role of the supernatural in Stalker and that tradition continues in Rat Film.

In Rat Film, the past takes the form of the Norway rat in that it becomes the fulcrum for understanding the present. After the opening, Anthony lingers on an image of a rat failing to jump out a garbage can. Jones provides the answer for the rat’s entrapment: the Norway rat can jump 34 inches high; Baltimore’s garbage cans are 36 inches high. A correlation focused on the relationship between Baltimore’s infrastructure and the Norway rat arises here and becomes the method for understanding what Anthony sets out to achieve.

To draw out this history, Anthony delves into the story of a John Hopkins University professor who created a new strain of rat poison and tested it on the neighboring black slum. That slum and others in Baltimore would become sites of sociological experiments. A different answer towards Baltimore’s “rat problem” soon came in the form of urban reform (one exterminator that Anthony follows says Baltimore has a people problem — not a rat one). The initial rat poison merely gave more room for the surviving rats to breed, actually increasing the number of rodents. Instead, improving housing would lower the amount of rats while increasing the quality of life for citizens.

But how can opportunity be given when minority citizens also find it stripped away by the law? In 1911, Baltimore Mayor J. Barry Mahool signed into law an ordinance that prohibited minority citizens from moving into predominantly white neighborhoods and vice-versa. The law only lasted a year before it was declared unconstitutional, but as Anthony points out, it merely shifted from the public realm into a private one: the affluent white citizens of Baltimore would gather together and in secret to sell homes to minority citizens.

In one of the film’s final scenes, Anthony goes through a montage of different maps of Baltimore put together by its government: a map displaying the most poverty-stricken areas, a map displaying where Baltimore’s citizens with the lowest life-expectancy are living, a map displaying Baltimore’s most crime-ridden areas, and so on. The shocking blow of the montage arises from the maps converging on the same area of the city — zones designated as “C3” and “D4″; areas where minorities were made to live and prevented from moving out in order to keep the city segregated.

When Anthony turns to the video-game simulation of Baltimore, he implicitly creates a city free from redlining, a city unmarred by the racial constraints of history. The simulation takes place from a first-person perspective — and, like Google Maps (which can be overlaid over the polygonal models), it allows the user to glide through the streets and above buildings. Anthony provides a metaphorical world in which neighborhoods — whether they are “A1” or “D4” — can be traversed with ease.

Anthony, however, seems to understand that the racial problems plaguing Baltimore can’t be solved by lingering in mere fantasy. Soon the simulation reveals the limits of its freedom. A glitch allowing the player to traverse into buildings exposes the areas not rendered by the game as a galaxy — an even more grand metaphor for freedom. But upon approaching this new area, the game bounces the player back into the rendered zone, trapping them within set confines. Redlining still exists in Anthony’s version of “The Zone.”

Jones repeats the quote that opens the film, and now with the intertwining history of Baltimore and the Norway rat explained, it makes sense to understand Anthony’s film as a rat itself. Anthony digs into the unknown micro stories of the city to shed light on the bigger macro problems. In an effort to reform the city, Baltimore’s current mayor, Catherine Pugh, promises that the city will be redrawn, and that Baltimore will become “New Baltimore.” Whether or not Pugh’s statement exists only as an empty political platitude remains to be seen, but it does exist as a real alternative to Baltimore’s problems, rather than a fantasy simulation to lose oneself in.

Perhaps aware of the threat humans pose to one another, Anthony cuts between citizens who hunt rats for sport, and a snake about to feed on a newborn rat. The apex of the montage ends in a blur of all three groups executing their prey, but Anthony chooses to linger on the image of the snake engorging itself on the newborn. The image, and Anthony’s insistence on making it a long-take, comes across as Rat Film’s most disturbing moment. Or so it would be if the entire film beforehand weren’t an exploration in human abuse.

Anthony Dominguez (@Dmngzzz) is an English/Film graduate from SUNY at Albany. His interests in cinema lie in independent and foreign films, as these works are less likely to be covered and consequently more likely to be forgotten. Anthony wishes to preserve their importance through his writing so others may discover these films.