Rat Film is a documentary that tackles the rat problem that has plagued Baltimore city since the early 20th century. While there is a government program set up to fight the rat infestation, many of the citizens of Baltimore are left to their own devices to combat the rats. Their methods vary from poison to guns to fishing rods to bats. The rats are an invasive and pervasive part of the city. This is explored through Baltimore’s equally ubiquitous issues with race, effectively turning the rat problem into a people problem.
The opening scene is gritty, but still cold and analytical. The narrator of the scene is icy, delivering facts like the automatic answering machine voice. She explains that the Norway rat species, which plagues the city, can only jump 32 inches and Baltimore city trash cans are 34 inches. The shot is shaky camera footage of a giant rat jumping around in a trash can. The shock comes when the rat seemingly jumps out of the can right into the camera. This scene effectively sets the tone for the rest of the film.
To put it lightly, the film is scary and unnerving. Rat Film is director Theo Anthony’s first feature-length documentary and he doesn’t shy away from the grotesque. The rats are explored as they exist in society as pests, pets, and prey. Rats are killed on camera and their corpses are held up to the camera for display. At the same time, the director uses video game simulations to literally put the viewer in the position of a pet rat locked in a cage.
The strongest part of the film comes from its editing and cinematography. The images of rats are interestingly juxtaposed together. One minute they are vermin and the next they are companions. One of the more striking moments is when two rat owners allow their rats to climb on them and then later a baby rat is being fed to snakes.
The story line as a whole leaves something to be desired. Each scene is thrust onto the screen and it’s left to the viewer to determine the meaning. This happens on multiple occasions. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. The one that was the most prevalent and mind-boggling was the scenes of NASCAR races. Their purpose isn’t immediately obvious to the story. They’re placement was confusing and lacked any explanation.
The film confidently says that the rat problem in Baltimore is a people problem, but it only shows the citizens on the surface. The characters in the film are not introduced and have no names. The film often leaves us wondering why citizens feel a personal responsibility to kill the rats. Granted, how they were killing the rats was interesting, but the personal investment to see them succeed isn’t there. The rats are discussed more in-depth than any of the people. It’s also unfair to say that the rat problem is a people problem when it’s actually a race problem. The race connection is shown throughout the film, but it doesn’t fully confront the audience until three-quarters of the way through with the introduction of some historical maps. The use of maps shows that areas of poverty—and therefore rat infestation—in 2016 are consistent with redlining maps from the 1930s and beyond, maps used to limite the city’s African-American population to the least desirable parts of town. This was the most powerful moment in the film as it is now apparent that Baltimore was systematically segregated through government policies.
Rat Film is an approach to documentary like no other. It’s continuously engaging and thought-provoking. While some parts aren’t addressed as in-depth as it could be, Anthony’s stringing together of scenes hints at a larger theme. With help from the invisible narrator, the film is pushed forward into a thoughtful attempt at grasping the race issues that continue to persist in Baltimore and much of the rest of the country.