Review by Jean Lowerison
“Before the world became the world, it was an egg. Inside the egg was dark. The rat nibbled the egg and let the light in. And the world began.”
-- Beginning of “Rat Film”
It’s safe to say that most people have a less sunny opinion of the lowly rat – especially people in Baltimore, which has been infested with Norway rats for longer than residents can remember.
Theo Anthony’s Rat Film opens with a cell phone sequence of a rat trying to get out of a Baltimore trash can. Norway rats can jump 32 inches. Those cans are 34 inches high. The point of this metaphor will become clear later.
Most rats aren’t trapped, but running free and Anthony shows us some of the imaginative solutions Baltimore residents have come up with to solve the problem, including air rifles, baseball bats and fish hooks baited with poisoned food.
The city also has an extermination team. We follow exterminator Harold Edmund on his rounds. Here’s a guy who knows how to get rid of rats – at least temporarily.
But just as you’re thinking this is just a cute little self-help about getting rid of common pests, the film careens from social commentary to scientific investigation to a couple of guys on a park bench pounding out a drum rap to the real point – the metaphor of that opening shot: the social engineering that maintains the city’s rat problem primarily in poverty-stricken areas.
“Ain’t never been a rat problem in Baltimore,” says Edmund. “It’s a people problem.”
And with that, Anthony launches into recent scientific experiments on rats.
The lowly Norway rat, experimenters tell us, has dietary needs similar to a human’s. That and the rat’s short life span (about two years) make developmental studies easy. In other words, finding a rat poison is easy, but getting rid of racism is more difficult.
That launches us into a politico-sociological consideration of the geological distribution of Baltimore’s rat population. In other words, the rat problem is a race problem. The city mandated housing segregation in 1911, and though that law was struck down by the Supreme Court six years later, it was replaced by private housing covenants.
Rat Film is one of a number of fine documentaries this year. Don’t skip it just because of that awful title.
Those interested in the unusual.