The Documentary "Rat Film" Combines History, Science and Sci-Fi to Explore Baltimore's History

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20 February 2018
Independent Lens: Rat Film
Courtesy of MEMORY
"Independent Lens: Rat Film"
Premieres Monday, February 26 at 10 PM ET on PBS
(Check your local listings)

          In his critically-acclaimed directorial debut, Theo Anthony uses the rat to burrow into the dark, complicated history of Baltimore. A unique blend of history, science and sci-fi, poetry and portraiture, Rat 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.

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