The Maryland Film Festival begins on May 3. Here’s a review of one of the most anticipated films of the fest.
Theo Anthony’s experimental documentary Rat Film is, indeed, about rats. Actual rats with their whip-like tails, twitchy noses, and miraculous survival skills that have tormented Baltimore city for over a century. But it’s also about rats as a metaphor. The behavior of rats, we are told, mirror humans in many ways. They “dream of a desirable future,” according to those studying their dream patterns. They respond adversely to overcrowding and neglect—turning on each other or becoming passive with depression. To extend that metaphor further, Anthony suggests that we citizens of Baltimore are essentially rats in a cage whose destinies have been orchestrated by racist policies and corrupt urban engineers.
In short, Baltimore has a rat problem because Baltimore has a poverty and segregation problem.
The film’s hero, if you will, is Harold Edmund, a charismatic and philosophical technician with the city’s rat control squad, Rat Rubout. He drives around the city helping those Baltimoreans with yards that have been invaded by the persistent pests.
“It ain’t never been a rat problem in Baltimore,” Edmund says. “Always been a people problem.” Some people choose to bypass the Rat Rubout team and take matters into their own hands. Anthony shows us a guy who has a veritable arsenal to combat the rats in his backyard. (After shooting a rat’s head off, he cheerfully assures us that the rat felt no pain.)
We also see an enterprising (and hilarious) pair who literally go fishing for rats—using peanut butter and turkey meat as bait and dangling their rods over alleys.
We get a glimpse at a man who keeps rats as pets. In one deadpan tableaux, three rats are perched on his shoulders, as he gently lifts a wooden recorder off the table and begins to play.
Parts of the documentary are narrated by a voice actress with an almost eerie monotone. She’s the one who calmly tells us stats about rats, as well as depressing stats on redlining and segregation.
The film takes a few digressions I didn’t quite understand, like an ongoing bit on a Baltimore-themed virtual reality video game or a visit to the Maryland Medical Examiners department. Look, all the world should know about the exquisitely bizarre crime scene dioramas on display there, but what they have to do with Anthony’s overall themes, I’m not quite sure.
Then again, I’m sure if I asked the talented and thoughtful Anthony—a protégée of the famed German filmmaker Werner Herzog—he would explain it. He’s a Baltimore native and his film is filled with both affection and despair for his city. I can’t say that Rat Film is a cheery experience, but it’s certainly an indelible one.
Rat Film plays three times at the Parkway Theatre: May 4 at 7:25 p.m.; May 5 at 12 p.m.; and May 6 at 10 p.m.