By: David A. Chiodaroli
For Baltimore resident and independent filmmaker Theo Anthony, it all started with a rat in a trashcan. “I was coming home from the bar one night and I heard this sound coming from a trashcan,”Anthony says. “So, I took out my cellphone and I just started filming.” Little did he know at that time, but this shot of a rat struggling to get out of a Rubbermaid trashcan would be the beginning of a journey, one that would culminate in Rat Film, his first ever feature. Following a showing at the South by Southwest film festival in March, Rat Film opened at the historic Parkway Theater in Baltimore on September 15th, earning a positive reception from the city’s residents. The movie, which attempts to explain some of the issues surrounding the city’s overwhelming rat problem, also serves as a social commentary, addressing the issues of racial tensions that linger long after segregation ended. Throughout the film, Anthony dissects the many failed attempts at dealing with the issue, including a depression era poisoning campaign that caused more harm than good.
“The film shows that pest control was deeply tied into all of these anti-poverty and urban cleanup operations in the thirties,” Anthony says, “that were deeply racist and classist in both structure and targeting.” The film goes on to show that, not only were the campaigns ineffective, but they may have made the problem worse. “It wasn’t until later that Dr. David Davis said that poisoning rats on an individual basis doesn’t decrease the population. The more rats you kill, the quicker they spring up.” Davis proposed that an improvement of living standards, including better sanitation and trash collection, would be a more effective option at neutralizing the city’s rat crisis.
The film shows that, even today, little has changed in terms of how the rat problem still predominantly affects the city’s poorest residents. A map of the city, showing segregationist ‘red-lining’ housing codes (named after the red color used to denote the most impoverished areas), is placed next to a map detailing the areas where the rat problem is at its worst. Both maps paint a sobering picture: the rat problem today mainly affects areas that were originally coordinated as ‘blacks only’ before the civil rights era. Today, these areas are still predominantly black, impoverished, and crime ridden, leaving Baltimore’s most vulnerable residents to live in the same appalling conditions that their forbearers suffered. And it seems that the city still hasn’t realized that going postal on the rat population is not the best solution when dealing with the crisis. As the film shows, the city still employs exterminators to spray poison wherever the rats dwell. Even citizens have taken up the fight against the rat, using a variety of weapons and tactics in a never-ending battle where victory is not guaranteed.
Despite all of this, Anthony is pleased with the dialogue that Rat Film is making, and hopes to use the movie as a teaching tool to discuss both rats and other issues plaguing
“Going out, I hear people come up to me all the time,” Anthony says. “And they’re appreciative of the fact that people are talking about this.” Hopefully, this positive buzz will translate into action, and perhaps solutions, to the issues that ail Maryland’s biggest city.
For more information on Rat Film, including where it’s playing, visit the movie’s website at memory.is/rat-film