“It ain’t never been a rat problem in Baltimore,” says Harold Edmond, a garrulous veteran exterminator working for the Baltimore City rat removal program. “It’s always been a people problem.” Edmond, who emerges as one of the more engaging interviewees in Theo Anthony’s essay-documentary Rat Film, has been getting rid of rats for years, but he’s also a compassionate animal lover who says that, growing up, he had the rodents as pets. For him, the unwelcome creatures are merely an echo of urban blight, found in “the places where the most uneducated people are … those who have the least resources. The people who have no dreams, no aspirations, just survival. That’s basically where you’re gonna find the guys.”
Anthony has, in essence, built his film around this comparison — around the sociological, political and cosmic resonances between the city’s history with rats and its history with poverty and racism. A 1911 resolution allowed Baltimore to legislate the segregation of separate blocks between whites and blacks; that ordinance was deemed unconstitutional a few years later, but the effort to divide the city simply migrated to the private sector, via the practice of redlining. Years later, with the U.S. worried that Germans might use rats for germ warfare, the city tested deadly rat poisons in black neighborhoods.
Anthony isn’t after one-to-one correlations here. His work turns on poetic juxtapositions — a la Werner Herzog or Travis Wilkerson — where concepts that might seem like they have nothing to do with one another somehow elucidate or otherwise complicate each other. His central comparison is fascinating, but sometimes the director’s associations and ideas just hang there, unreconciled and incomplete. There’s a bit of filler here, too. The film repeatedly cuts to a first-person 3D computer simulation of the city of Baltimore, over which a user can superimpose real-life photos to create a more realistic vision of the world. But a glitch in the program means that, as one walks through the simulation, parts of the screen suddenly show the expanse of the solar system: The user winds up virtually wandering around a fractured city, with certain spots opening onto the vast emptiness of space. The director makes much of this, but is that actually deep or merely “deep”?
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Perhaps ironically, some of Rat Film’s best parts involve more traditional documentary approaches. Anthony follows several individuals who spend their time hunting for rats. One guy uses a blowgun and quietly roams his and his neighbors’ yards looking for the critters. Another duo prowls the streets at night, with a fishing rod and a baseball bat, hooking the creatures and then beating them dead. These guys are presumably helping handle the city’s rat problem, but they also seem to take an unusual amount of glee in killing. What exactly does it all mean? I’m not sure, but it does make for a disturbing and occasionally absorbing watch.