After a run at festivals including Locarno, Rotterdam, True/False, and South by Southwest, Theo Anthony’s feature debut, Rat Film, will make its New York premiere as the opening night film of the 2017 edition of “Art of the Real” the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual series spotlighting expansive nonfiction cinema. A kaleidoscopic, category-defying work, Rat Film freely borrows from myriad traditions in documentary filmmaking, using the history of the titular rodents in Baltimore as the jumping-off point for an investigation into what Gilles Deleuze termed “the society of control.” Anthony’s film is whip-smart but never pedantic, more closely resembling thinking out loud than a succession of teachable moments. Ambitious and accessibly virtuosic, Rat Film recalls both Les Blank’s compassionate regionalism and Chris Marker’s visionary abstraction—not bad for a first feature.
Dan Sullivan (Rail): Rat Film was years in the making and underwent many changes from its inception to its completion. How did the passage of time determine the shape of the film?
Theo Anthony: I was working on a lot of different things at the same time, and there was just a certain point when I realized they were all just different sides of the same thing. The film as a unified project started literally from an image that’s one of the first shots in the film, of the rat in the trash can. I came home one night and I heard the sound in the trash can and I went over and took out my cell phone and started filming. I think that image was just very haunting, and the whole film is an unpacking of that image. It was going to be a short film at first, with that video and then some portraits of exterminators and different people who kill rats. But then I started reading more and more about pest control and the history of Baltimore, and realized that all these residential segregation laws were invented here; rat poisoning was invented here; and there were strange and mysterious overlaps. So the film just naturally grew and grew. It sort of felt like it was a tumor. When I started editing, I had no idea it was going to be a feature. But it wasn’t until the very end of the process that I knew what I had, this process of trying to find a way that all these different approaches and stories could be mashed together and shown in orbit around each other rather than as distinct threads.
Rail: I was really struck by how the film kind of has it both ways. There’s a balance between abstraction and more concrete social analysis, which mirrors the way the film treats the figure of the rat. The rat represents systems of social control in the city of Baltimore, but then you also engage with the rats as rats. The rat is both a metaphor and not at all a metaphor.
Rail: Did you always have this balance in mind?
Anthony: I used whatever formal approach came most naturally to me. So, parts of the film resemble a music video, others a video game, others a kind of scientific slideshow. They all have their inner logics and their own place. I had a lot of fun developing these different formal strategies and seeing how they could build upon each other and, more importantly, how they could undermine each other. Like the omniscient voiceover, for instance… How can you establish objectivity and, at the same time, also develop structures within the film that undermine objectivity? I was trying to look at how subjective power structures pass themselves off as objective, and hopefully it’s apparent that there is a sort of irony or subversion there.
Rail: It’s a fine line to walk, between the abstract and the concrete.
Anthony: I think the film works on a more structural, abstract level, but also on a very subjective, boots-on-the-ground, concrete level. Looking at a film as a political object, creating access points at every single level, ladders both up and down, is really powerful. We just screened the film at the Baltimore city municipal building, and I was so nervous. For a film that talks about the failure of Baltimore government, it felt like this really cool, subversive act to screen the film within the main government building in Baltimore. We had the “Rat Rub-Out” team there, their bosses, their bosses’ bosses, all in one room watching the film. And we all watched the film together, and everyone really loved it! And it was incredible—as the film ended, I got up and started doing my Q&A—and, all of a sudden, people started jumping in with all these different issues and ideas. It fluidly transformed into a town hall meeting, and I didn’t really have to say anything. I think this might be inherent to the film’s structure, and hopefully it’s demonstrable in the effect it has when people watch it.
Rail: I detect two more or less distinct modes in the film: portraiture and essay. I was wondering if you thought the film was going to tend more toward one of these, or if you always had this kind of mongrel, hybrid form in mind?
Anthony: Initially it was going to tend toward portraiture. The film was originally called Rat Killers,and it was to be one person after the other. I was watching a lot of Ulrich Seidl at the time. [Laughter.] But, very quickly, it turned into more of a dialectical model, with two disparate modes that are set in conflict with each other. I love that the portraiture provides a personable face to some of the structural topics and histories that are evoked, while the more abstract concepts in turn complicate these subjective portraits. The film is talking about the history of Baltimore, but it’s also commenting on issues inherent to documentary filmmaking.
Anthony: A lot of people ask me why I chose rats, and I guess I’m not really that interested in them as a subject per se, but rather as a vector across people, ideas and histories. Each time I tried to define the rat in biological, social, or cultural terms, I found that I was getting further and further from the energy of the piece. People have so many preconceived ideas about rats, and it’s interesting to think about any subjects that can transcend boundaries, whether they be garbage routes, or mailmen, or whatever. The same methodology could be applied to any vector that moves across geographies and histories. Rats are a particularly loaded one, but they are by no means unique.
Rail: I also had this notion that Rat Film is a regionalist artwork, which I suspect was your intention.
Anthony: I was worried that people outside of Baltimore wouldn’t get the film, that it would be lost in specificity. Baltimore is a concise parable for trends that have happened all over the world, but at a scale that makes certain characteristics hyper-defined. And I’m interested in the idea of a city’s geography as the formal horizon for a film. In the way that a rat is a fairly arbitrary subject for a film, the decision to place it in Baltimore was somewhat arbitrary as well. It was a cool exercise to make the film just be about Baltimore, because sometimes when you restrict your view, new perspectives arise. I did try to make it a very Baltimore film. For instance, the score is by Dan Deacon, who’s Mr. Baltimore, the godfather of the Baltimore arts scene. New York City has this constant high roar, but Baltimore has a baseline silence that’s punctuated by very loud bursts of ambulances, police sirens, screams. There’s a harmony to that which you have to live here to understand.
Rail: How did Dan Deacon get involved?
Anthony: Dan was one of the reasons I moved to Baltimore. I grew up half an hour south of Baltimore, and the city was where I always snuck off to, to go to shows. Some of my best and earliest musical memories are from Dan Deacon shows when I was sixteen years old. He’s such a force and presence in Baltimore and brings together so many ideas and projects. I moved here and we became friends, and then collaborators. I told him about this project and he was into the idea—both of his parents were exterminators, actually. We found that we have a really conducive working process with each other. We both don’t have an idea of what we’re going to make when we start out, but at the outset we create these initial conditions for chaos, and let things unfold, and just try to find structures which we can use amid that. It’s a very collaborative and dynamic working process. I would show him an edit, he would score it; I would change the edit, he would change the score; we’d rearrange everything and go from there, until we found a resting point.
Rail: Can you say anything about your next project?
Anthony: I’m working on a spiritual successor to Rat Film, also set in Baltimore, that looks at emerging camera and imaging technologies and their influence on our vision and perception. Roughly speaking.
“Art Of The Real” runs from April 20 – May 2 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
DAN SULLIVAN is a curator and writer based in New York City.