Equal parts disturbing and humorous, informative and bizarre, “Rat Film” is a brilliantly imaginative and formally experimental essay on how Baltimore has dealt with its rat problem and manipulated its black population.
Paralleling pest control and racial oppression, this first documentary feature from Theo Anthony presents a collage of ideas that rock gently between the real and the surreal, the benign and the batty. Past, present and future share visual and narrative space as the histories of poisons, eugenics, home-loan guidelines and forensic science coalesce like iron filings around a magnet. The aesthetic audacity alone is intriguing; combined with Maureen Jones’s icily robotic narration and Dan Deacon’s eerie electronic score, the effect is somewhere between confounding and mesmerizing.
From within a variety of environments — including Frances Glessner Lee’s meticulously constructed miniature dioramas of unexplained deaths — Mr. Anthony shines as much light on racist urban planning as on ratty behavior. Lessons on residential segregation slip in quietly among oddball portraits of city residents who harbor, hunt or otherwise relate to the creatures. A young couple laboriously rat-proofs a living room so their pets can play, and two men go “rat-fishing” using lines baited with turkey meat and peanut butter. With a side helping of Louisville Slugger.
“It ain’t never been a rat problem in Baltimore; it’s always been a people problem,” says Harold Edmond, a wry exterminator and philosopher-poet. And as successive layers of street maps are projected onscreen, the relationship between infestation and economic inequity is clear: Rats thrive, according to Mr. Edmond, where people have no dreams. Unspoken is the suggestion that those aspirations have been more effectively eradicated than any vermin.