Theo Anthony’s Rat Film, which first premiered at Locarno in August, wastes no time in grabbing your attention, opening with voiceover about the beginning of the world, then smashing from a Norway rat, trying to jump out of a trash can, straight to the title card. Given that Rat Film has been slotted in the “Impact” stream of this festival (alongside films like Fire at Sea), one might initially think it’s info-doc on Baltimore’s rat problem. But within seconds, it becomes clear that this is only one strand of Anthony’s wide-ranging and consistently inventive vision, which is at once a documentation of rat-related eccentrics, a look at the influence of behavioral scientists at Johns Hopkins University, and an examination of the various forces that shaped Baltimore as a city (particularly the racist housing policies that “redlined” predominantly black neighborhoods).
It’s to Anthony’s credit that his film is so relentlessly digressive, both playing with and interrogating documentary conventions at every turn. Repeated forays into a virtual Google Maps version of Baltimore (explored as an infinitesimal “floating point”) question the idea of the camera as a null object; tangential sections on the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” (which are touchstones of forensic science) explore the disjunction between an object’s presentation and its reality. Although these various tangents may not all coalesce by the end, Rat Film still manages to be compelling and surprising all the way through. Allow it to burrow into your mind and it won’t disappoint.
Published as part of Vancouver International Film Festival 2016 | Dispatch 2.