Following Local Exterminators and Incorporating Imagery from Google Earth and Google Maps, the Filmmaker Sought to Illuminate Systemic Racism without Being Preachy

Theo Anthony’s documentary Rat Film is an impressive and unique debut feature. It ties together an exploration of the world of rats with the history of segregation and institutional racism in his native Baltimore. It belongs to a very local tradition of filmmaking; Rat Film is as much a piece of Baltimore mythmaking as John Waters’ films and David Simon’s TV shows Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire. The film’s structure recalls the wide range of interests shown in Errol Morris’ Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, but without the montage that ties together Morris’ film. Rat Film is just as carefully edited, but it deals with its subjects one by one. Anthony follows exterminators (all of whom happen to be African-American) around, while also using maps and images from Google Maps and Google Earth to delve into Baltimore’s racist past. The film’s progressive politics are evident, but they never become totally explicit, and Anthony is far more interested in calling out systemic racism than saying it’s bad for individuals to become white nationalists and use the N word. As you can see from the following interview, Anthony is interested in speaking to both sides of the political spectrum.

StudioDaily: Your film is very critical of the history of racism in Baltimore, but it also seems very proud to be a product of Baltimore. Do you see this as a contradiction?

Theo Anthony: No, I think it’s very important to understand the history of Baltimore, not all of which is positive. I also don’t want to fetishize those negative things. We need to understand where we come from. The film is an expression of my love for Baltimore. I’m trying to sincerely and earnestly understand more about it. Those things can co-exist in a mutually beneficial way.

Was it ever difficult being your own D.P.?

It’s how I’m used to working. I’ve always shot, directed and edited my own stuff. It’s the only way I know how to work. I think that on the plus side, it allows me a great degree of mobility and independence from factors that typically weigh down a production. On the down side, it limits the scale of the production. It’s good to have other voices in the filmmaking, I think. That’s something I’m actively trying to do in my next projects: scale up the production size and also bring in other voices.

Were there times in the editing when you felt someone else’s point of view would have been useful?

Constantly. It would have been important for me to wrestle with what I was up against. This is ultimately a very personal work, like all films are. I think it’s important to get out there that this isn’t an objective history of Baltimore, but my own path of learning and trying to come to terms with Baltimore. That has its own limitations and flaws. I do think there is a really fine balance between that personal wrestling with the creative angels and bringing other people in to see that you’re not totally off-course.

What kind of camera did you use to shoot it?

Mostly a Canon 5D, but also a Sony a7S and also my iPhone. I try to be transparent about the stuff I use, but it could be shot on anything. I use whatever’s easiest at the time. Cameras are kind of beside the point to a production.

Louis Eagle Warrior

I know you’ve studied with Werner Herzog. I’m curious if he’s seen the film, and if so, what he thought of it?

I did do a master class with him called the Werner Herzog Rogue Film School. It was an incredibly humbling and valuable experience in my life. I didn’t necessarily learn a lot, but it put a lot of things in perspective that I was doing and that I wanted to do with my life and work. I have been in contact with him, and he has seen the film. He liked it, and he wrote really nice things back. He was very supportive of both the ideas in the film and the “rogue spirit,” as he put it, that he tries to espouse.

This seems like a very rich time for documentaries right now, with people like Joshua Oppenheimer, Robert Greene [and] the filmmakers that came out of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. On a more mainstream level, there’s Ezra Edelman. Frederick Wiseman is still alive and making great films. Do you feel part of a community of documentary filmmakers in America?

Those all seem like unreachable titans, and I would never place my work near them. I feel like I’m still really young, and I’m making a lot of mistakes. I’m trying to learn from other people right now. I absolutely think it’s an exciting time for documentaries. There’s a lot of mainstream crossover. There are many films that are taking chances not just with the subject matter but with form. That’s my bottom line when I evaluate the success of a documentary. Are they conscious of how they tell the story, not just what the story is? I think that’s where the real political struggle lies. We need to focus on these platforms we’re using to tell our stories. All the people you mentioned are doing that, and I would add a lot more names to that list. It’s really cool, and I’m very inspired by what I’m seeing.

I believe your film premiered at Locarno [a film festival in Switzerland] about a year ago. To me, it seems deeply and intensely American. Have European audiences or audiences at festivals in other places around the world reacted differently to it than American audiences?

My biggest anxiety when I was making the film was that I was making this hyper-local film that wouldn’t transcend its locality — it wouldn’t make sense to anyone outside of Baltimore. I’ve been floored by the international response. It’s played Portugal, Spain, Turkey and, really, all over. I’m amazed at the way international audiences are able to connect with the central narratives of Rat Film. That’s been really cool to see. It’s not the same story, but poverty by design and very orchestrated campaigns to keep the rich rich and the poor poor are not unique to Baltimore. Thinking about the fundamental nature of documentary is not unique to Baltimore or my film either.

Have you played any specifically documentary festivals like True/False or CPH:Dox?

True/False was actually our American premiere. We played there in March to an absolutely amazing crowd. It was surreal to have that many people watching it there at one time. Most of our screenings have been pretty small. True/False was an incredible festival. We’ve played Doc Lisboa in Lisbon and Art of the Real in New York. Yeah, we’ve had a lot of success on the documentary festival circuit.

Harold Edmond

Given the subject matter, were you afraid viewers would think you were making an easy equation between how rats and African-Americans have been treated?

That was my biggest fear. I don’t think I ever complete that equation, but my intentions don’t always equal my real-world impact. It’s difficult to realize that something you made with the best of intentions can actually inflict pain and draw on this brutal history you set out to critique and fight. That’s something I constantly work and struggle at, not to inflict pain on people. It’s the last thing I want out of a film. You’ve hit my central nerve. It talks about an incredibly painful history. How do I create something that’s not the newest weapon of that history? The free market has an insidious way of doing that. Also, I’m a white filmmaker talking about black history, and that comes with its own blind spots. I continuously try to expose myself to wider points of view. As I get a wider release, the most difficult part is seeing my intentions not always match up with the impact.

Have you received negative responses from African-American viewers?

Yeah, I’ve received negative and positive reactions. I don’t want to say it’s been one way or another. I have received negative feedback from incredibly smart black critics who were pointing out what I just said, that for all my intentions it’s possible to fall on the opposite side of them. I’m trying to listen and realize there are things I will never understand. I will continue to be open to growth. I’m listening to those voices especially now.

When I saw your Q&A at Art of the Real, I thought you were perhaps the most self-critical filmmaker I’ve ever seen speak.

Thanks for that. I constantly try not to be satisfied with where I’m at. I try to understand the ego is not the point of filmmaking. I try to be humble and transparent, both in terms of myself and my work.

Map of Baltimore

Map of Baltimore

I’ve never seen a film that relies so much on maps, both physical ones and computer-generated images. Obviously, you made a conscious decision not to use archival images. I was wondering what led to that.

My gut response is just an aesthetic one. There’s a certain control over the malleability of archival footage, like being able to zoom in. You can have really high-quality scans of a map. But a high-resolution scan of an archival film is really real. Looking at still images in the context of a moving frame brings a critical distance. You’re not getting bombarded by the next frame. You can focus on a single image and think about it in a much larger context. It’s primarily aesthetic, but also I’m not trying to provide the illusion of immediacy. I’m trying to have a targeted, distancing effect. I want images of the past to be seen in a new light.

Your approach to political filmmaking is fairly allusive. You’ve kept talking about how you wanted to make a film that’s political in form, but Rat Film is never preachy, and it doesn’t tell the audience what to think about subjects like racism, beyond that they should be against it. Are there any filmmakers you think are working in the same vein?

Absolutely. In every interview, two filmmakers I keep bringing up are Harun Farocki and Hito Steyerel. They made work that are these incredibly intricate thought-experiments that mash up different histories. When put together, they force you to reexamine your assumptions. But they also don’t tell you what to do. I think the important thing is that you can have political films without having a log line that tells you what their political bent is. It’s probably not hard to figure out what my political bent is, but I can picture someone with the opposite politics seeing Rat Film and not being turned off by what they perceive to be its bent. There’s a lot of different access points to it. If you could get Trump supporters seeing it and having a deeper conversation with themselves about the environment and its effect on the individual, that’s great. A lot of those filmmakers you spoke about before — Joshua Oppenheimer is approaching complex histories and making such a bold formal leap as he does so. That is the kind of filmmaker who I look up to.

I’m pretty familiar with Farocki’s late films. It’s interesting to think about him filming corporate training sessions and things I’m sure he opposed politically, but he films them in a very blank way. If there’s any anger, it’s implicit.

Those corporate training videos and The Interview have been incredibly influential for my next project. Being a filmmaker, you can find yourself in a situation where you totally disagree with the person you’re with but you connect with them through the camera. I do believe in preserving a fundamental dignity to people in front of the camera. That’s really easy when it’s an empathetic person, but it’s really, really hard when you not only disagree with that person but think the person is doing active harm to the world.

I interviewed Oppenheimer shortly before The Act of Killing came out, and I didn’t ask him this, but I wondered how he could stand spending so much time with people who did such horrible things.

I’ve never been in a situation like that or come close to that scale of horror. From my own experience, it’s a really confusing thing. You have a person in front of you who can be charming, and you can get sucked into their world. Maybe it’s important to get sucked into their world a little bit. But you need your own foundation in those situations, to bring yourself out of it, because there’s a risk you end up shooting a commercial for something you intended to critique. It’s a very fine line.

How did you get involved with Dan Deacon, who wrote the score for Rat Film?

Dan is one of the reasons I came to Baltimore. One of the first concerts I went to was one of his. He’s one of the key figures in the Baltimore community. I was, first and foremost, a fan of his music and what he does for the community. Over time, we got to know each other and the conversation got started about this project I was doing. He came to me and said, “I want my music set to your images.” I said, “Wow, I want my images set to your music.” There were some incredible coincidences. Both of his parents were exterminators. We found an incredible way to work together. We speak the same creative language in a different dialect.

What is your next project?

I started shooting my new film this summer. I’m a fair amount of the way in. It looks at different relationships between imaging technologies and the way we see, how what we see is always mediated and enabled by these instruments. It looks at people who work in different sectors at the forefront of new technologies, like virtual reality or viral marketing, but it also tries to get a deeper historical or personal understanding of our own beliefs that go into seeing.

Rat Film opens tomorrow (September 15) in New York, Chicago and Baltimore.