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Claus Mueller


Claus Mueller is a Film Festival Ambassador to filmfestivals.com

He is based in New York where he covers the festival scene.


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Rat Film, Theo Anthony, 2016, USA

Anthony used a unique approach in his first time documentary feature film devoted to presenting the everyday life of rats in the human community. Rather than following the traditional documentary presentation that is imbedded in a linear predictable story line, Anthony ties together disparate elements including segments which do not have a direct relation with the rat theme. Two segments introduce parts of a training program for investigative officers that use small and large reconstructed crime scenes. They link to the theme only through their Baltimore location. Using archival footage, new media technology such as 3D recording, application of virtual reality, statements by principal participants, and an objective perspective, Anthony conveys to his viewers unexpected insights into the problems of rats and their human overlords.  The documentary brings back to mind the contribution studies of rats have made to our under standing of human behavior. Thematic subjects he covers are broad. They range from the interaction of Baltimore residents with rats and the functions rats have, the scientific research of rats as expressed in the ecological methods and the analysis of changes in the city of Baltimore. Through much of the documentary we share dead pan statements of a senior rodent exterminator employed by Baltimore city who firmly believes that rats do not constitute a problem but the people hosting them do, a view confirmed in research. Human beings create the conditions under which rats can strive. In everyday Baltimore life rats do have functions. Apart from disposing organic waste some rats are social companions of people. We encounter a gentleman who is playing the flute to three rats living in his home caressing them during the music. A couple prepares a leisure room in their basement for their rats who are sitting on their heads and enjoy watching television programs. For other Baltimore residents rats are their favorite targets for hunting. Some construct their own weapons and proudly demonstrate skills killing rats where they live. Others rely on catching rats with fishing rods and peanut butter bait. After a report written during World War II suggested that rats could be used as weapons for biological warfare the government provided funding for research on rats. Because no effective poison was available to kill the most prevalent rat, the Norwegian brown rat, Dr. Kurt Richter from John Hopkins University developed a poison that was tested successfully in the slum neighborhoods surrounding the university. The decaying neighborhood and its rats were effectively captured in stark persuasive archival footage selected by Anthony. His research led Richter to the conviction that the welfare state was detrimental for humans. After all, he found that socialized rats tended to develop smaller organs and decreased their physical activities. Dr. David Davis, another prominent researcher, took a contrary view arguing that the more rats are killed the more food is available for the remaining rats. Correspondingly, there is no declined of the rat population. He supported an ecological view. People are the problem not the rats  if waste collection, housing conditions, water, sewage systems and other factors are taken into account  If such factors were controlled the rat population would remain stable or decline but not expand. Davis’ perspective was shared by the senior exterminator presented in the documentary.  A third perspective from rat studies with relevance for understanding human behavior was developed by John Calhoun. He researched the relationship of crowded space and the wellbeing of rats and originated the 'behavioral sink' theory as revealed by his research. If rats are confined to one space and most mass in one section of that space, social and psychological conditions of the rats deteriorate rapidly and they are no longer able to survive. A significant part of the Rat Film is devoted to the social history of Baltimore and the collapse of its urban structure. In 1933 private research was carried out to identify high financial risk sections of town taking factors such as real estate demand, ownership concentration, social status and homogeneity into account. In 1937 Baltimore was divided into four distinctly rated areas using social criteria. The green area consisted of new urban developments, the blue area was still desirable, the yellow area housed “less desirable” populations and the red area had “undesirable populations, black and mixed racial groups”. Because of this published classification residents of the red area were not eligible to take out loans and were ‘red lined’, a concept still in our vocabulary. Anthony collected data from 2015 covering the same sections of Baltimore that were researched in 1937. He focused on arrest rates, crime rates, vacancy of homes, unemployment rates if twice of the national rate, and life expectancy if one standard deviation below the city’s average.  When the new data were superimposed on the 1937 data it turned out that hardly any significant changes that had occurred over the 80 years covered. That red area of 1937 looked pretty much the same as the 2015 red area. Fittingly   Anthony concludes his film with residents celebrating a utopian vision of the “New Baltimore”. At a news conference the mayor resigns, area demarcations are abolished and plots are allocated at no costs through a raffle. We also see a snake devouring a baby rat.

The Rat Film is one of the best documentaries I have seen. In his choice and execution of the theme Anthony displays originality and bravura breaking traditional documentary boundaries and uses a fractured storyline to reach and hold the attention of the viewer. The documentary is packed with information and becomes a learning experience for the social life with rats, the impact of space crowding on wellbeing, to the origin of red lining and the persistence of urban discrimination.

Claus Mueller,  New York Correspondent

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