“There’s never been a rat problem in Baltimore; it’s always been a people problem.”
Rat Film is a bizarre documentary that seeks to speak about social issues by showing bits of the history of Baltimore and the way we people interact with rats. It never really makes clear how these two things are related, other than we see how some people in Baltimore deal with rats in various Baltimore neighborhoods.
Let’s face it, rats are not most people’s favorite animals. In fact, a large part of the film involves the various ways of killing rats: a city employee who puts poisons in their lairs, a man who uses a pellet gun (and a blow gun), a pair of men who use fishing rod and baseball bat. There are even scenes of baby rats that are used for food for snakes. But the film also shows us people who have rats for pets and enjoy their company. That’s the rat part of the film.
The film also traces some urban woes through Baltimore’s history. It traces the history of how the city became segregated through laws and the red lining of various neighborhoods. Because of that some neighborhoods (populated by whites) did well and others (populated by African Americans) declined and decayed. The film uses various maps and video game-like recreations of the city to show how this history has created some of the problems the city faces.
Now, what do these two concepts have to do with each other? I suspect director Theo Anthony wants us to see a connection between areas with rat infestation (poorer areas of the city) and the history that has created these pockets within the city. However, the film never really connects the dots to make that case. The social issues the film brings out are worthy of exploration. They are not unique to Baltimore. Many cities have similar histories and are still dealing with the consequences of the past. But for me the metaphor of the rats and the many ways people relate to them failed to shed light on the issues, and served as a major distraction from more important human problems we face.
Photos courtesy of Memory