Review by Mark Merrell
From its title, one may presume that Rat Film is a documentary featuring rats. In a sense, that is true. However, the rat’s plight is used as somewhat of an allegory for the struggle of humans. The film is a sociological look at the parallel between both using Baltimore, Maryland as its setting.
The movie uses a single narrator, (Maureen Jones) to tell the tale. In the opening sequence, a race track, or drag strip in the background is used, as a jet car fires up its engine, while the narrator explains how the world is a egg, and the rat bit it’s way through the egg letting in the light.
The story is set in a series of separate interviews, cut between historic facts about the city of Baltimore and its history, and case studies on rats. Large cities during the turn of the century were exploding in numbers of persons, and thus into overcrowded, congested slums, overrun with filth, filled with a growing population in poverty, held back by prejudice.
One of the interviews looks at a man working for the city of Baltimore. His primary focus is rat extermination and control. Another is a gentleman who displays an array of weapons he uses to kill rats running free in his neighborhood. A third subject uses a fishing line with food as bait. Instead of a lake, or pond, he casts his hopeful testament into a back alley, hoping to lure an unsuspecting rat on the prowl. Once caught, he and a friend use baseball bats to kill the rats.
The movie looks at city planners trying to understand just how the town ended up in its plight in the early 1900’s. In 1911, an attempt to segregate the city was deemed unconstitutional. City planners used other methods, including denial of bank loans to move out of poverty for the downcast. They also did mange to segment African Americans away from the predominately white effluent neighborhoods. Other minority’s, including impoverished white persons, were also kept at bay as well, leaving the poorest segment of the population with seemingly no way out. All the while, conditions for those persons living in the earliest populated areas, primarily the inner city, exponentially worsened over time.
Similarly, a study on rats resulted in findings authorities were seeing in the human population. Changes in behavior due to living conditions and overcrowding were eerily alike between rats and humans. Drawing from theses elements, the film also explains that rats, during testing, showed signs of dreams, perhaps contemplating their want of food kept in sight, but separated from them, as they eventually fell asleep. We also learn that diets and eating habits are nearly the same between the two species.
The visuals are disturbing, but they are meant to be for a reason. Rat Film is a wake-up for people to understand their past, and create a better future, for both humans and rats. Directed by Theo Anthony (Coffin Maker, Chop My Money, The Beauty of Barbara Allen) he takes, what appears to be dissimilar topics and creates a poignant and artistic look at human nature. Thought provoking, with some disturbing images, Rat Film is striking in its delivery and message.