Gavin Schmitt Interviews Director Theo Anthony
Theo Anthony is a crazy genius from the East Coast. Originally from Annapolis, he worked for VICE as a journalist and found himself in the Congo of all places. While there, he turned increasingly to film as a way to express himself and tell the stories he felt needed to be told. Now back in the States, he has made Baltimore, Maryland his home base.
His latest project is “Rat Film”, (affiliate link) which comes out on September 15, 2017. On the surface, it is a story about the rat problem in Baltimore, and Anthony follows around a pest control specialist, as well as some amateur rat hunters. But along the way, the story goes from one tangent to another and we find a much bigger tale here. How do rats connect with city planning and segregation? Where does the founder of modern forensic science fit in? How about a creator of at poison? Somehow all these topics come together, defying traditional narrative.
I had the honor of bouncing a few questions off of Theo Anthony in advance of the film’s wide release, and he has kindly answered them. Readers are strongly encouraged to check out the film — it left me with some new ideas, and I’m sure it will have the same effect on you.
GS: Your best-known work up to now has been in the Congo. This may be an odd question, but did anything you saw there change the way you saw Baltimore?
TA: My experience in the Congo was a severe widening of my perspective. It was one of many experiences that made me realize how narrow my lens had been prior to that experience. As I get older and older, I’m constantly humbled by just how wide that lens can go. If I am largely the sum of my experience and my environment, I try to be open to how much that can change with new experiences and new environments. So yeah, that has absolutely influenced the way that I try to see and understand the city of Baltimore and choose to engage with it. But I’m still growing and fucking up and learning from those fuck-ups.
GS: In “Rat Film” the wide range of topics – Frances Glessner Lee, to rat poison, to segregation – has me wondering how much research was involved in advance and how much was stumbled upon throughout the filming process.
TA: The film was a mixture of lots of research but also a lot of on-the-ground exploration. What you see in the film is faithful to how I learned it. If I found an archival photo, it was presented as an archival photo. If I was exploring Baltimore through Google Maps, I had a screenshot of my desktop. The footage of me riding around with Harold [Edmond, the pet control man] is literally me getting to know Harold for the first time. I tried to let that natural process of learning and understanding dictate the structure of the film.
GS: Research in dusty archives is a subject that fascinates me. Can you explain what role Andrew Holter had in the project?
TA: A friend at the Maryland Historical Society had recommended to me an incredibly bright graduate student from UMBC who could help me out named Andrew Holter. He was much more than a research assistant, though, he was a co-navigator. He would take certain strands or ideas I had and then dive into the library system and re-emerge with just these amazing images and documents that built on our conversations in the most generative and inspiring way. There is no way this film would be what it was without Andrew’s help and guidance.
GS: Strictly speaking, the film is a documentary, but it could just as easily be called “experimental” or an “art film”. How consciously were you pushing back against convention?
TA: I think the film very actively pushes back any sort of classification that would have it put neatly into any of those categories. There’s no reason they can’t be all three of those, or something else entirely. Of course documentary exists, just as any other classical genre exists. But we need to radically reconsider the division of documentary vs. narrative as essentially “this actually happened” vs. this “didn’t happen”. And when we do come up with categorizations, we need to realize that they’re porous and fluid and more indicative of our own subjective agendas than any natural state in the world.
GS: Although the title suggests the focus is on the rats, the real meat of the story is the segregation history. Was this an intentional bait and switch, bucking viewer expectations?
TA: The rat is a a trajectory across a number of people and ideas and histories. It consciously asks you to go in expecting one thing and then to use those expectations as fuel to reconsider your own assumptions and ways of viewing the film.
GS: One of the most striking images is the “redline” map and how it hasn’t changed in decades. City planning, zoning, etc is a complex topic, but were you able to see any simple ways this could stop being perpetuated?
TA: The redlining map is just one of many institutional barriers that have been placed to keep the poor poor and the rich rich. It is by no means the only one, and to me, watching the film now, it feels incomplete to have focused so heavily on just that one. Sure, there are broad stroke policies that I can use this space to advocate — stop targeting and jailing generations of black families, don’t spend more than half a billion dollars in tax breaks on a new Under Armour headquarters city appendage when your school system budget is in shambles, don’t contribute over twenty years of hard work on a new city transportation line and then suddenly cancel it only to funnel that money out to rebuild highways in other wealthier (whiter) counties. The list goes on, and is transferable in one form or another to nearly every city in America right now. But also, I don’t think it’s the place of a film to propose a solution. A film is a modeled thought experiment, and hopefully we can learn something from that process that we can apply to solution-building once the film ends.
GS: For many of us, the “film industry” of Baltimore begins and ends with John Waters. As someone working in that city, how do you see filmmaking in Baltimore and its future?
TA: As truly amazing and as great as John Waters is, I would say that for those people whose knowledge of Baltimore’s film industry begins and ends with him, don’t really know that much about Baltimore. Baltimore’s got an incredible and flourishing arts community, and film in particular is the one that excites me the most right now. You have filmmakers like Matt Porterfield making some of the most highly regarded films of the last decade. Other filmmakers like Jimmy Joe Roche, Marnie Ellen, Corey Hughes, Albert Hughes, Lendl Tellington who are all making incredible work. And in other forms, you have filmmakers like Dave Manigault who are cranking out music video after music video with some of the most talented and up-and-coming musicians right now. And on top of all that, my absolute favorite film festival in the world is the Maryland Film Festival. I know I’m biased, but I’ve traveled to a fair number of them at this point, and nowhere else have I found such an inspiring combination of exciting curation and loving community. There’s lots of things that are just beginning in Baltimore.
GS: Thank you for your thoughts, Theo!
Check out Rat Film, (affiliate link) Directed by Theo Anthony