“The whole point of the exercise is what exists between”

An interview with Theo Anthony, director of Rat Film

In his brilliantly inventive nonfiction essay, filmmaker Theo Anthony explores the catastrophic failures and prejudices of urban society via the life of the humble brown Norway rat. Featuring a wide-ranging and surprising collection of zealous back-alley rat-hunters, street-wise exterminators, mid-20th century scientists, and racist city planners, Anthony has crafted a “fresh and inventive” documentary tour-de-force that’s been compared to the audacious work of Werner Herzog. Below, the Baltimore-based artist and filmmaker speaks with DOC10 about his cinematic influences, distancing effects, and crime-scene dioramas.

Why did you decide to call it RAT FILM since it's obviously about so much more than rats. And why specifically have "film" in the title? It seems to suggest a self-reflexivity, no?

I like that it’s a bait and switch: it tells you what it is off the bat, but it’s not really about that, at all. I love the idea of: Here’s this thing, it’s a film and you’re constantly reminded that it’s a film. It’s a very deliberate distancing strategy, reminding the person that they are a spectator, because so much of the film is about being a spectator, and being an observer. I think so many docs eliminate that distance, providing the illusion that you’re really experiencing something. But you don’t leave a film experiencing something; you just watched a film. And I enjoy working with that distance, because that distance enables perspective.

Some people have compared your work to Werner Herzog and you even attended one of his seminars. Can you talk about Herzog as an influence, and how much did that class inform the making of RAT FILM? Any other artistic or cinematic influences worth mentioning?

That was one of the most valuable experiences of my life. Being in the room with him, it was just incredibly important and it was a moment of validation that I needed, but which I learned to refute. He would say you don’t need anyone telling you that you can do this. And it’s not about making a film, but how you live your life. He has this all-encompassing vision. It was really inspiring, spending 4-5 days, in a room with the most talented, idiosyncratic filmmakers I’ve ever met. It continues to be a really valuable community. I think about things he says every day; his way of looking at the world with never-ending curiosity, more so than his style. Finding other essay filmmakers like Chris Marker, Harun Farocki and Hito Steyerl, the first time I saw their work, I thought this makes sense; this is how I think. They have no allegiance to any one approach or method. I’m this very scattered, messy person, and I like this sense that there’s a definite order to the chaos. And they’ll build, reassemble and borrow from whatever they need. It’s a form that feels most natural to me right now.

There are so many interwoven stories and strands that run throughout RAT FILM. What was the edit like in terms of balancing all these different pieces, from the rat-fishers to the scientific research to the urban policy. Was it all intuitive; what kind of logic was behind it?

It was both organic and principled, and very organically sabotaging those principles. I think the film is in scope a very honest and earnest documentation of the subject matter and the city and the people. Within that, I had very principled approaches: a subjective style, an archival approach and a videogame approach and all these styles build upon and sabotage each other. That’s really cool with me.

Of all the elements, the one that I find perhaps the most odd and intriguing is the Google Maps material—this digital version of the city that's also insufficient and full of gaps. When did this become part of the film, and how do you think it contributes to the overall film?

I had shot much of the whole film. And then I was at a residency in upstate New York, and I was in the early freak-out stage, realizing I didn’t have enough fuel and I thought, I’m going to have to go back to Baltimore and film every street, and then I’ll have a complete map of Baltimore. And then I realized how shitty and colonizing an idea that was. So I spent hours and hours wandering Google Maps as a way to connect to he city that I wasn’t in. I found the distance enabled by the digital technology gave me a great perspective, of me as a filmmaker making the film. It evoked the illusion of the filmmaker as a floating point entering a game and crossing boundaries. And the problems that you start to run into when you’re a filmmaker with a body.

The other fascinating detour, which is particularly pertinent for our screening in Chicago, are the miniature crime scene dioramas by Chicago heiress Francis Glessner Lee. This is an amazing sequence, but it's also not immediately clear how it relates. When did you discover these dioramas, and when did you decide you wanted to include them here?

So Francis Glessner Lee was based in Chicago, but after her death, the Chicago PD didn’t know what to do with her dioramas. For some reason, the Baltimore PD ended up with them, and they’re still being used as crime scene exercises 70-80 years later, and they have an advantage over any virtual reality environment, because there’s a lot more details. This is a section that comes up the most in Q&As, and it’s not something where I can say what it means. But there is a lot of different threads in the film, and one of them is the filmmaking process itself, and the tour guide in that scene says something that could be a thesis for the film: “People want solutions, they want answers, but that’s not what these dioramas are for. The point is there is a discrepancy between the information being presented in the dioramas and what actually happened. So the whole point of the exercise is what exists between.” And that’s how I view the filmmaking process.

Paula Froehle