Questioning Connections: Theo Anthony Discusses "Rat Film"

Talking to the director of a sweeping portrait of Baltimore—one of the most inventive and consistently surprising features of the year.
Lawrence Garcia

Since its premiere at this year’s Locarno Film Festival, Theo Anthony's Rat Film (not to be confused with Morgan Spurlock’s Rats)—ostensibly a documentary on Baltimore’s rat problem—seems to have burrowed under the radar, not surfacing till its recent showing at the 35th Vancouver International Film Festival. Though its subject may seem like strange material for an excellent documentary, let alone a striking debut, the film shatters those expectations within seconds of its opening—voiceover about the origins of the universe (“Before the world became the world, it was an egg…”) accompanied by shots of a racetrack; a (common) Norway rat trying to jump out of a trash can, then a smash cut to the title—and over the course of its 82 minutes, Rat Film becomes one of the most inventive and consistently surprising features of the year.

“It ain't never been a rat problem in Baltimore. It's always been a people problem,” says Harold Edmond, a long-serving member of the city’s Rat Rubout team. Quickly shaking off its info-doc trappings, Rat Film becomes, at the very least, a sweeping portrait of Baltimore and the people that inhabit its rat-infested streets. Shifting the form and function of its raw material with ease, the film weaves together eccentric portraits of its various inhabitants (such as Matt the “Rat Czar,” a local figure who shoots rats in his backyard) and straightforward educational detail (the history of rat poison), with a look at scientists and studies at Johns Hopkins University, namely Curt Richter and David E. Davis, and the forces (political, social or otherwise) that have shaped Baltimore as a city. It’s beguilingly digressive, favoring loose, associative editing patterns over a clear narrative or thematic arc. Throughout, the flow is punctuated by abstract, dreamlike interludes, accompanied by voiceover that’s at once ironic and apropos (“Does a blind rat dream?”).

Even more striking are the film's forays into a video game-like Google Maps version of Baltimore that the viewer (or “user”) explores as “a floating point… a null object,” guided by the chilly, clinical voiceover of Maureen Jones, which becomes as integral to the film's design as Dan Deacon’s pulsating, electronic score. In these recurring sections, Baltimore becomes a literal model, its inhabitants blurred out, anonymous; the images offer both a godlike vantage point and an interrogation of such—an active questioning of camera, observer and model. It's a canny conceit, one that adds a chilling resonance to Anthony’s exploration of the forces—particularly the (racist) policies of the Federal Housing Administration that “redlined” predominantly black and low-income areas—that have shaped Baltimore into what it is today. The effect is such that the introduction of John B. Calhoun's overpopulation experiments on Norway rats (and the resultant concept of the “behavioral sink,” a term used to describe societal collapse as a result of overcrowding) becomes one of the most unnerving moments of the film—the behavioral animal model turned frighteningly real. When, late in the film, 2015 Baltimore statistics are laid over the segregated (Residential Security) maps created by the FHA decades earlier, the implications reverberate with a resounding clarity. “New maps. Old maps. Same maps,” intones Jones’s voiceover. It's a scathing indictment of insidious, passive policy, but also a sober recognition that such statements, however impassioned, remain insufficient.

What’s most impressive about Anthony’s approach is the way that he encourages and questions both form and material at every turn, simultaneously creating and undermining the connections that emerge—like rats scurrying out of the city’s dark recesses—over the course of the film. (“The game pushes back.”) It’s telling that the film’s various digressions include a look at the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” by Frances Glessner Lee, a series of dioramas that have become touchstones of forensic science. Both documentary and “documentary,” it’s a film extremely aware of its limitations, and yet practically exploding with possibility, the infinitesimal “floating point” treated with both skepticism and a sense of infinity. The last section is particularly daring in that regard, collecting the film's numerous strands and pushing the film into an almost utopian, science-fictional realm, the inhabitants Baltimore having collectively decided to destroy the city and start over—that perennial dream of rebirth. The maddening, beguiling nature of Anthony's film is the gnawing sense of doubt that comes with it. We return to those opening images and sounds—the racetrack and the plume of smoke; the origins of the world. The rat race begins anew.

NOTEBOOK: The film is built on a really out there idea—a film about rats in Baltimore. Obviously it goes much further than that, but what was the genesis of the project? Where did the idea come from?

THEO ANTHONY: I really didn’t set out to make a film about rats in Baltimore. I don’t really set out with an idea of what I’m going to do and then go towards that idea. I just tried to trust my instincts and curiosity, and this film was a documentation of a lot of different subjects, ideas and images that I was interested in, and that were all connected in very mysterious and interesting ways. The best way to describe the structure of the film is a tracing and outline of that shape of connections between ideas and people and images.

The literal genesis was I came back one night and there was a rat in my trash can... I had just come home from the bar, and I heard that rustling so I balanced the iPhone on top and just filmed it for like 2 or 3 minutes and it just couldn't get out. Shortly after, I was in the early stages of researching and developing a story I wanted to do on the Rat Rubout team, which is the group of exterminators that’s publicly funded by the Baltimore City government who are responsible for all of the rat eradication in Baltimore. They’re so overworked and underappreciated, and are just these superheroes of the city. So I had this really crazy profile I wanted to do and I just started looking into it more and more, and the history of rat poison… Rat poison was invented in Baltimore and it was tied in with a lot of eugenics movements at Johns Hopkins and that influenced a lot of residential segregation policy... It was just really fascinating and connected and I just tried to follow that as deep as it went.

NOTEBOOK: Is that where your background as a journalist came in then? I know you covered Baltimore in VICE and some other places. Did this inform the way you approached the film?

ANTHONY: I was never a very good journalist. I think a lot of my work does respond to my problems and the limitations of the journalistic expectation of presenting an objective account of things. I tried to always be as transparently subjective as possible in my pieces. In the terms of the way I look for ideas and follow on hunches or different strains, and certainly the research methods that I used were definitely culled from my journalistic background. It’s really just being curious, just following that as deep as you’ll go. The Internet is a really powerful thing...

NOTEBOOK: Did you grow up in Baltimore?

ANTHONY: I grew up half-an-hour South in Annapolis. It’s a pretty different place—on the water, older, very old, pretty conservative. Baltimore was the place I’d come to as a teen to go to all the cool shows and it was very formative for me growing up.

NOTEBOOK: The film plays with a lot of these documentary conventions and it keeps changing before your eyes. There’s educational material, then there are these eccentric characters, and then these dreamlike interludes… Were all of these elements always part of the overall design?

ANTHONY: I think “design” might be giving me more credit than I deserve. I was using whatever form or format I thought reflected the material and my own commentary on it. Roughly, there’s the more subjective portrait style, then there’s the more archival style, then there are some strange poetic interludes… But I very much used accepted documentary modes to present those different sections how I saw fit. I think I’m the opposite of a formalist. I set up all these mini-rules for myself and just try to break those rules and never really deliver on anything. Just when you think you’re sort of building to an emotion or place, I try to undermine that, because I really, in my films, try to avoid conclusion or avoid catharsis. I just used whatever tools I could to do what I wanted... Within these miniature spirals or sections, there were rules, but they would continuously be broken.

I think it’s really problematic that people have an accepted way of what a documentary is supposed to look like. Those forms of the talking-head, where you have an issue… as if the world organized itself according to an issue, as if the world was organized according to “climate change” or “poverty in India.” That’s not how the world is organized. It’s not that simple. A lot of contemporary documentary just tries to reduce and simplify that… I think maybe people are good-intentioned with it. They reduce and simplify so people can understand, but what they end up doing is make it easier to consume and deny accountability. That’s why I’m constantly trying to use the different formats that sabotage each other and sabotage my own perspective. It’s just a mess, but it’s very connected and hopefully people can follow that and gain their own insights and experience and look at that and apply it to whatever comes next in their lives.

NOTEBOOK: That interrogation comes in the with the Google Maps material, as well. There’s the voiceover about the “floating point” that questions that idea of the passive observe and the invisible documentarian.

ANTHONY: Absolutely. I think the whole [cinéma] vérité or ethnographic film acting as if the camera is this null object is totally flawed. The camera is an active force. It’s just navel-gazing if you only focus on how this is a movie-within-a-movie and stuff like that, but I think that’s just an interesting train to navigate. It’s something that should be acknowledged and worked through. And if you work with it in a really honest, curious and earnest way, I think there’s really new territory to explore with it.

NOTEBOOK: The Google Maps part of the film is also really interesting because it gives you this very detached perspective, which is helped by the voiceover, so when you introduce material like the “behavioral sink” and John B. Calhoun’s experiment, it becomes really unsettling because you’ve been watching this “model” for a very long time. Could you talk about how you approached the material with the behavioral sink and all these social science strands?

ANTHONY: I think the unnerving thing about the voiceover is that for all that specific Google Maps stuff, it’s really trying to undermine the subjective point of view. But at the same time, you have this objective, educational slide-show film within the film. I think my goal was, as the film builds, as you learn more and more, for you to simultaneously question what you’ve learned. It’s really incredible how much power there is in causality. If you did a really close read of the film, you’d see that so much of the stuff doesn't follow. They’re related, but I think when you have A and B in a film, people assume causality and they don’t really question it. That’s again the role of the model-maker or the director or the editor; and that’s the power of being able to define the rules of the model or the film. If you did a close read, a lot of it might not make sense, but if you think back on it: “Why did I assume that that made sense?” I mean they are all related. Most of the stuff is pretty true, but… That [questioning of assumptions] was something I really tried to explore.

NOTEBOOK: In terms of the editing style, connecting these ideas that maybe aren’t meant to be connected, did you plant some red herrings? There are those forensic models, about which one of the men says: “These are not meant to be solved.” Was that your intention with some of that material?

ANTHONY: I really tried to avoid any thesis or overall argument that you could sum in a logline, which has been really problematic when trying to pitch or explain it to people. But when I was making it, I really didn’t want to be able to reduce the film to a logline or say: “I tried to prove X.” But if there were a thesis to the film or like an essence, that forensic scene where I”m talking with Bruce [Goldfarb] at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner [of Maryland] and he’s showing us these little dioramas and he says: “These are not whodunits. These are not meant to be solved.” They’re models. They’re pictures. What you’re supposed to get out of it is that there’s a gap between what’s being shown and what actually happened. That’s the critical exercise. You’re not supposed to say: “Oh, I know.” So many films are created just to be solved, like you get it, and you feel accomplished. There’s not a lot of critical value in that. Questioning your assumptions, or maybe not even knowing what happened but being forced to arrive at your own conclusions and never really being sure of that are really valuable things to do. There definitely are tangents; there’s a lot of tangents. I think the whole film is tangents. But they’re really spiraling off of some really mysterious center.

NOTEBOOK: Moving to some of the more practical elements: Was it difficult getting all the archival material that you had in the film or was it fairly straightforward?

ANTHONY: The archival stuff was definitely the most difficult part of the film, because I don’t make educational films... none of my films have ever looked like that, with images one after the other and where you do sort of close readings. So I was really nervous, for a lot of reasons, just cause aesthetically I really don’t like the way that that’s done… Also, I sort of painted myself into a corner. As I said before, I’m trying to tell people this very real history from a position that I’m constantly trying to disprove and so I really didn't want to come across condescending, like I’m mansplaining this history. Because it’s not the history, it’s a history. It’s a path of my discovery and it’s not the objective account. I think that those sections caused me the most amount of anxiety. In the end I just wanted to show how interesting this was, because I was curious and found such incredible material and these ideas that were already out there. So many amazing scientists and writers and researchers had already down the work. I just thought it was really cool to point people in those directions.

On the most practical level, I had this incredible research assistant named Andrew Holter, who is a grad student at UMBC [the University of Maryland, Baltimore County]. We just spend so much time talking about this and he spent weeks in the archives, just poring through everything and was just one of the closest collaborators I had on this film. He just brought this film to the next level.

NOTEBOOK: The people who are in the film—there are the guys rat fishing, Matt the “Rat Czar,” etc.—how did you find them?

ANTHONY: Most of the time it was me surfing the Internet, hearing about a person, or hearing about a person through a friend of a friend, looking them up online, finding their contact info, and cold-calling them basically to say: “Hey, I’m making this film about rats. It’s not really about rats, but also about Baltimore, but not really about Baltimore. Would you be in my film?” Some took more convincing than others, but for the most part, almost everyone said yes. I would go out basically the next day or the next week or something and just hang out with them. It was a lot of very personal interactions engendered by a very impersonal surfing of the Internet. [laughs]

NOTEBOOK: Were those relationships difficult for you?

ANTHONY: Difficult how?

NOTEBOOK: Difficult in the sense that you’re questioning a lot of these documentary conventions, but going to someone’s house and filming them, there’s a sense of maybe manipulation or exploitation. Was that a struggle for you, navigating that?

ANTHONY: Oh, yeah. I think it’s extremely manipulative. I’m showing up with a camera and even if I’m trying to be this blank canvas and get their story, I have an agenda—that’s just what it is. You’re there to get something. I think that’s one of these central ethical struggles that doesn’t really have an answer. You’re really trying to tell a story or a portray something… but to do that, you almost have to treat the other person as an inhuman object… That’s a very simple, exploitative model, and it’s something that I’m always trying to challenge, and most of the time successful... It is an extremely manipulative process, but I really do make an effort to always maintain the dignity of the person in front of the camera. And even if I am participatory in this very extractive, exploitative act of documentation, I’m also trying to connect with that person on a human level. And again it’s this question of whether you’re actually connecting with them on a human level so you can get a human interaction on camera. Even if the answer is no, if I’m interacting with that person on a human level and I’m getting something out of it, in the end that’s still being commodified into my film. It’s something that you’re constantly navigating. There’s no right way to do it.

There are very easy times when: “Oh, this person just wants to tell me everything.” When I showed up with Matt the “Rat Czar” he literally walked me to his back table and he had all his rat guns out and I didn’t even have to ask him anything. And there’s other times where you’re sort of nudging people with the camera to get into position. That happens in everything. So many people view documentary as this thing that’s not supposed to happen, but it does. It happens just as much in some social issue documentary about climate change as it does in this. And rather than pretend that it doesn't exist, I try to acknowledge that and be very honest about this dilemma, and just try to navigate it within the work.

NOTEBOOK: I’m curious whether you see this film as a documentary, or yourself as a documentary filmmaker?

ANTHONY: Yes? [pause] Yes, I think it is. It is. I don’t think I’m prepared to answer: “What is documentary?” But I would put this within the documentary genre. It definitely incorporates a lot of modes. It’s a documentary that tries to defy its own categorization of documentary. But in the end, it’s exploring a history that’s very real. It’s exploring subjects that are very real. And it’s exploring those connections between subjects and histories that are very real. If that puts it in the documentary camp, then sure.

NOTEBOOK: Was there any material that you wanted to include but couldn’t?

ANTHONY: Yes. Every single one of those characters and sections I could have made a film about… One thing that I would like to do is to have maybe an annotated bibliography where people can explore these links and histories. It’s really fascinating and really tied into a lot of other stuff. This film is not the be-all, end-all on all this in any way. There were so many things that I wanted to get into that were left out, and that was just a constant anxiety as I was making this film. I knew how incomplete it would be when I decided to stop, so I just tried to finish the shape and feel good with the shape that I had made.

NOTEBOOK: Let’s talk about the ending, which pushes the film to this strange, utopian breaking down and rebuilding of the city. How did you arrive at that point?

ANTHONY: Going back to what we were talking about with most documentaries or films being solved, or having resolution or catharsis. I really tried to deny that. I don’t know if you could really have a spoiler alert for this film, but… I’m building this film the whole time. You see the images of a racetrack, you see all these people watching and you’re sort of aware—you try to become aware of yourself watching this film. I wanted it to end with this false catharsis. You’ve learned about this history, you’ve seen all these characters, but people always want to know: “What happens next? What do I do now? How do I act?” The film posits this really fantastic future where we could just start again and everything is destroyed and everyone is fine. Obviously, there is no starting over and it’s going to be really messy going forward. It tries to arrive at a conclusion that’s immediately sabotaged by the final shot, which people will just have to see.

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