Film Review: Rat Film

September 27, 2017

By Peter Young


Filmmaker and Baltimore native, Theo Anthony, takes on the story of the infamous Baltimore rat in his critically acclaimed documentary, Rat Film. The film speaks to Baltimore’s jovial love-hate relationship with rats, highlighting those Baltimoreans who hunt rats as a hobby by either patiently waiting in alleyways with pellet guns or casting fishing lines baited with lunch meat. There are hints of serious tones and deep existential questions interspersed with cuts to quirky displays of Baltimoreans bonding through song over their hatred of the rat. All the while, Rat Film tackles larger social issues about how housing and lending policies led to segregation in the city and how fewer resources were entering poor neighborhoods, which ultimately spawned the perfect living conditions for the Baltimore rat to thrive.


The film also focuses on Johns Hopkins researchers, who were on the innovative forefront of rat experimentation in the 1940s, although some of those studies can hardly be considered ethical by today’s standards.


During World War II, the Axis powers had an embargo that effected the export of the Mediterranean red squill, the gold standard for rat poison at the time. Simultaneously, many began to fear that Axis powers would use the Norway rat as a vector to spread rat-borne illness in the US. These sentiments prompted Johns Hopkins scientist, Dr. Curt Richter, to lead the effort in developing the rodenticide, alpha napthyl thiourea (ANTU), which proved a success in killing rats while having a limited effect on humans. Unfortunately, the first large-scale effectiveness study was field-tested in the poor neighborhood directly surrounding Johns Hopkins Hospital. While public notices were posted about the use of this rat poison on certain blocks, East Baltimore residents were never provided with the opportunity to offer their consent to participate in this research, and adding insult to injury, the poison killed pet cats and dogs in the neighborhood and physically harmed several children who needed to have their stomachs pumped as a result.


In a move to further transform the area around Johns Hopkins Hospital into a laboratory, Dr. David E. Davis, a colleague of Richter and considered the “founder of modern rat studies,” set out to catalogue where rats were living in East Baltimore and what the surrounding environmental conditions were like. His research found that areas with the highest density of rats also had poorer sanitation, which suggested if neighborhoods were cleaned and houses brought up to code, the rat problem could be significantly curtailed. Davis’ findings sparked a debate between those, like him, who believed the best route to curbing the rat population was through systematic public interventions and those, like Richter, who believed spreading poison was the remedy.


Davis’ results point to a larger, systemic health issue in Baltimore. The areas in Baltimore where rats prosper are now largely black communities that have lower income, have historically received fewer opportunities for residential mortgage loans, and were found in 2011 to possess a shockingly low life expectancy when compared to other neighborhoods around the city. This brings up important bioethical and public health implications since many hospitalized at Hopkins come from the same poor, neighboring communities described above, which ultimately raises waiting times in the emergency department and can lead to poorer health outcomes.


Many of these bioethical concerns coincide with one of the more memorable quotes in the film. Edmund, a rat exterminator with Baltimore’s Rat Rubout program, whose philosophical flair is exhibited throughout the film, offered his wisdom, saying, “It ain’t never been a rat problem in Baltimore. It’s always been a people problem.”


Rat Film will be shown twice daily through Thursday, October 5 at The Parkway Theater, visit their website for more information.

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Peter Young

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