Take a rodent's-eye view of poverty, racial injustice and Baltimore history in 'Rat Film'
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Harold Edmond in "Rat Film"
Courtesy Memory

Director Theo Anthony uses the rat to burrow into the dark, complicated history of Baltimore in his critically acclaimed directorial debut Rat Film.

The documentary — a unique blend of history, science and sci-fi, poetry and portraiture — debuts at 9 p.m. Monday on Independent Lens on Panhandle PBS. It will be available for streaming beginning Tuesday online and on all PBS apps.

“I hate rats and yet I can’t get enough of Rat Film,” said Lois Vossen, Independent Lens executive producer. “Unexpected and hypnotic, Theo’s documentary is a pinhole view that opens up, layer after layer, to encompass the story of poverty and race in America. As one of the characters so aptly explains, ‘Ain’t never been a rat problem in Baltimore. Always been a people problem.’”

The film explores how racial segregation, discriminatory lending practices known as “redlining,” and environmental racism built the Baltimore that exists today.

In Baltimore, just as in many other urban areas, rats are part of the daily lives of residents. Some have learned to live with them, domesticating rats as pets. Others hunt them for sport, using blowguns and fishing rods. At the center of the documentary is Harold Edmond, who works for the city as a rat exterminator. As someone who spends most of his time driving from house to house in Baltimore’s rat-plagued neighborhoods, Edmond knows his job is only providing a temporary solution to a problem that is innately human. 

What begins as an examination of our interactions with rats – portraits of rat-afflicted citizens, as test subjects in labs, the development of rat poison – becomes a deeper exploration of Baltimore. Anthony investigates the history of the city, and the systemic racism that established the low-income and predominantly black neighborhoods that are still plagued by rats today. In one of the film’s most shocking sequences, 2015 Baltimore city statistics are superimposed over old redlining maps, exposing a haunting correlation to present-day urban issues and the neighborhoods formed decades ago. 

Combining 3D animation and computer-generated imagery with a score using rat-generated theremin and player piano sounds by Baltimore-based composer and electronic musician Dan Deacon, Rat Film thrusts viewers into a kaleidoscopic look at Baltimore, allowing them to create their own connections between scenes. Despite the title, the core of Rat Film is deeply human — an unflinching anthropological look at the racial injustices entrenched in the city’s past.

"There's a thrilling friction between the smoothly assembled pieces of Anthony's narrative, and often sparks. Artificial categories start to fracture, and supposed facts are exposed as fictions: how some animals are deemed pests, others pets; some food, others family — and how certain groups of people are officially designated 'undesirable populations'," wrote the Los Angeles Times' Sheri Linden. "A seeming detour on crime-scene forensics deepens the mystery, horror and beauty of this singular constellation of synapses — the rare documentary that refuses to connect the dots for us."