Interview: Theo Anthony
Rat Film, the feature-length debut of 27-year-old Baltimore-based filmmaker and photographer Theo Anthony, is less a film about rats than it is about humans. Made mostly in the immediate wake of the death of Freddie Gray in police custody and the 2015 Baltimore protests, Anthony’s film uses rats as a way to reveal the spatial construction of social difference in a city with a long history of housing segregation driven by real estate developers and policymakers. Anthony looks at rodents as a case study for structural inequality in Baltimore, situating one’s relationship to rats as a symptom of one’s place within a broader socioeconomic matrix.
“Were you given a choice to like rats, or were they crawling their way into your bedroom every night because you grew up in a neighborhood that doesn’t have trash pickup and has been neglected by a system for 80 years?” Anthony said in our interview at the New America Diner, a restaurant and watering hole in Baltimore that hosts film-related events and screenings. (A few feet away, the director Matt Porterfield tended bar as filmmaker Zia Anger, Theo’s girlfriend, sat nearby.)
Anchoring its multifaceted look at rats and humans with the recurring thread of a ratcatcher making his rounds, Rat Film has a fragmented eclecticism and dry appreciation of absurdity that recall the later essay films of Chris Marker and echo the roving swing of VICE videos. Anthony draws on a vocabulary absent from many documentaries dealing with race relations, from 3D animation and visuals inspired by the Berlin-based artist Hito Steyerl to the experimental music of Dan Deacon (whose parents, it turns out, are exterminators). The experimental approach succeeds in getting us to think in new ways about racist attitudes and practices such as redlining, topics with such gravity that they usually get a more earnest treatment.
Anthony also thereby conveys his awareness of his position as a white filmmaker who wants to talk about race relations in Baltimore without speaking for the black experience or co-opting a narrative that is not his to tell. He had already tested out an oblique approach to discussing race relations in Baltimore in his 2015 short film Peace in the Absence of War, which rerouted around the common media narrative of angry blacks destroying property during the uprising, by focusing instead on the garish media circus that hovered on the perimeter.
Baltimore’s affordability and dynamic arts scene have made it an attractive home to a number of independent filmmakers with distinctive voices, from narrative and documentary filmmakers like Porterfield and Ramona Diaz to experimental filmmakers like Karen Yasinsky, Stephanie Barber, Jimmy Joe Roche, not to mention famous native sons John Waters, Barry Levinson, and David Simon. Anthony grew up half an hour away from Baltimore in Annapolis, where he attended a small private high school and taught himself how to shoot and edit video. After studying film at Oberlin College, where he made music videos on the side, he moved at age 23 to the Democratic Republic of Congo to shoot for VICE and Agence France-Presse. There he made Chop My Money, a short about young kids living on the streets of Goma. The film caught the attention of Werner Herzog, who picked Anthony for his Rogue Film School in Los Angeles.
Originally premiered in Locarno last August, Rat Film has its first public Baltimore screening as part of the Maryland Film Festival, and it opens Art of the Real tonight at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
What does it mean to you to be a filmmaker in Baltimore right now?
It’s cool because you see people rising out of a lot of circumstances with no expectation of what you are going to make. In New York, there’s a narrative indie scene and a lot of people are making similar films. But in Baltimore, there’s this network of different generations of filmmakers who have different styles. There’s no expectation, no market precedent or any market quota to fill. There’s no major production houses here, and besides House of Cards and Veep, there’s no mainstream scene here. There’s a lot of opportunity to engage with the city how you want and not rely on anyone else’s precedent.
What was is like to make a film like Rat Film in the wake of the Baltimore uprising?
I tried to divorce the film from the present in a very arbitrary way. There were times when I felt the impulse to insert references to the uprising, but I think my films operate by looking away from the thing you are supposed to be looking at—not looking at an object but at an impression that an object makes. I was very aware of what was happening in Baltimore and trying to stay very engaged. Being here during the uprising sparked this deep desire to understand the history of Baltimore. I tried to understand what happened with Freddie Gray in those days and weeks and months after not as this new event, but as something that has obviously been happening for a very long time, and it just so happens that the focus of the world was on us. It was really an earnest desire to understand the city and what the city was.
I lived on 39th and Greenmount up in Waverly. Greenmount is my favorite street in Baltimore. So you walk up Greenmount and on the left hand side, you have Guilford and Homewood, you have multimillion dollar homes, and on the right are boarded-up rowhomes. And there’s all these other signifiers of segregation that are very subtly coded into the way a city is designed. You have one-way streets and parking permits. You can’t actually enter Guilford or Homewood except through these two very hidden entrances, and you gotta know where they are. It’s the most blatant example of racism by design. You start to look into why the city looks the way it does, and it’s not by accident. It’s by design.
Do you see yourself in a tradition of Baltimore filmmakers like Barry Levinson and John Waters?
I love John Waters. Barry Levinson, I haven’t seen that much honestly. I grew up watching really shitty movies. I look towards people like that as inspirations and examples. I don’t see myself anywhere near having any pivotal role in Baltimore City. This is just starting. I think if anything it is just borrowing and smashing together different inspirations and forms. [Gesturing to the bar] Learning from Matt [Porterfield] how to write. Learning from John all these different seedy approaches to the city and smashing them together in new ways.
When you say learning from John how to approach the city in new seedy ways—was that an actual thing that happened?
[Laughs] I was hanging out with John last night, actually, pretty late. He has been very supportive of me in a cool way. We’re not super close, but it means a lot for someone like him to take an active interest in my work. He’s also the sweetest dude and cares so much about young people. In terms of Baltimore characters, there are very John Waters characters in my film. It’s part of the uniqueness of the city.
The guy with pet rats crawling on him playing the flute comes to mind. The campy, comic characters in Rat Film serve such an interesting function, as your film deals with deadly serious topics in a very funny off the wall way at times. The uniqueness of that approach really stood out, especially at a festival like True/False where there were a number of films that addressed racial injustice like The Force or Whose Streets but took a more literal approach to the subject matter.
I really loved Whose Streets, and that did have a lot of levity and normalcy—showcasing people who first and foremost want to be normal and have a normal life. Within a normal life there is levity and tragedy and everything in between. Some other films I saw are trying to understand the black experience only through the prism of trauma and suffering, which I think is a real mistake, and a really privileged mistake. If you are a white person trying to say, oh, black people only feel trauma and pain. You want to give the full range of human experience, not this very narrow slice, even if that is a very crucial slice to understand.
How do you regard your position as a white male filmmaker making movies about race relations in Baltimore?
I think a lot of my work does deal with communities and cultures that I’m not a part of, where I’m not from. So much of my work engages with the idea of distance and the privilege of distance—distance being something that enables perspective. That distance is a privilege in and of itself. It is this irreconcilable thing. You want to have perspective, but you have to understand that not everyone can have perspective in a situation. So for me, I have my own political beliefs that I think are pretty easy to parse out and figure out. But I think that I don’t go into filming with an agenda that I want to prove.
One thing that I don’t do is speak for black experience. But a lot of other white filmmakers who are in similar positions that I am in try to. This narrow prism of black pain and trauma, as I said, is a very important part of the black experience, but who am I to say that it is the only part? How I view my role is from my own privileged, distanced perspective trying to ascertain historical patterns or larger societal structures and trying to connect those abstractions to their concrete manifestations. And when I find those people and those manifestations, I allow them to speak for themselves. I view my role as giving a platform to speak. I won’t speak for them, like, “You’re this in the story” and “You’re this.”
But then again, I am placing them in a situation, and that’s the whole manipulation of filmmaking. I don’t try to hide who I am, or pretend that I don’t exist, or that my white body and all its historical associations and connections with it are not affecting the situation. But I try to engage with those power dynamics as part of the fabric, the texture, of the piece. It is very woven into everything I do. I try to be as transparently subjective as possible. I’m not pretending like I belong there.
Obviously, this hits a nerve, because I have a very strong reaction when I see people go in with a camera, when I was working in the Congo as a journalist. Because that was me, too. Getting all suited up in your G.I. Joe outfit with your camera and stuff, but you’re not a soldier, you’re a filmmaker. You are not that which you are documenting. And that’s the key power relation to remember when you are going into these situations. There’s this whole anxiety, that if you admit this, somehow your film becomes less. But I actually think it becomes more, because you are becoming more honest. Even if you are being honest about the manipulations that are taking place within the film.
This is coming after me making a lot of mistakes. Because it’s so exciting because you’re there, and you’re like, “Wow, all these people’s lives!” But this very impulse to document and catalog and see the world from someone else’s eyes is actually the very same impulse that leads people to want to plant a flag down and claim that land is theirs. It’s an impulse to colonize someone else’s perspective.
On the one hand your film does present a lot of different competing and colliding viewpoints on rats that create a complex web for viewers to navigate. But on the other hand, there are strong moments of indictment—the portrayal of the scientist Curt Richter, whose experiments with rat poison you place in the broader context of Baltimore’s housing segregation, and the NASCAR scenes, which show us America at its most toxic and bloated. There is a lot of openness, but there is definitely not-openness, too.
People have different dispositions towards rats, but how you feel about rats is very indicative of who you are and where you come from. Hopefully, as soon as you enter the logic of the film, these expectations come in conflict with each other, these moments of indictment lead you to strange moments of connection between opposing views. I actually just had this experience when I just screened the film for the exterminators, and had a separate screening for the Baltimore Pet Rat Meetup Group, which was crucial to the film. I joined the forum, and for two years was very active and in contact with them about people I should interview. These groups are coming at the film from very different angles. I was talking to the rat lovers who are the hardest core PETA vegan potluck don’t-hurt-a-single-living-thing-ever. I told them, “The main character is this exterminator, Harold,” and they said that they wouldn’t watch this. But by the end of the film, they’re like, “he’s so sweet!”
I showed it to the Baltimore Rat Rubout team who are the main characters in the film and Harold. I showed it to them, their bosses, their bosses’ bosses, their bosses’ bosses’ bosses, all the way up to the Mayor’s right-hand man, the director of the DPW. There was a room with 30 people across every single pay grade, across every single level of management of the DPW. We had the screening in the main municipal building in downtown Baltimore the main building next to City Hall, right downtown in their conference room. I tied a bed sheet to the ceiling and brought in a projector, I bought popcorn and pretzels and did a totally DIY screening for these guys because I wanted them to see it before they saw it with hundreds of other people in the room.
It was very tense going in, not only against me but against each other. We walked in, the bosses and the employees are on opposite sides of the room. All the rat rubout guys are coming in after a 10-hour day of work, all the bosses are on the other side of the room. And they start yelling at each other about overtime pay. Meanwhile, Harold is grumbling and really nervous and petrified. But as soon as the movie started, everyone started laughing. Everyone was cheering Harold on. The director, this very austere man, was laughing hysterically. Everyone was laughing.
The film ended and I got up to give my normal Q&A, and said I hope this went alright, how do you guys feel, and they didn’t even pay attention to me. The two aisles literally turned from facing the screen towards each other and started talking. It turned into a town hall meeting about overtime pay and different public awareness campaigns they could do and actual real problems that could be solved. You start to realize, people don’t talk to each other.
This response was by far the most rewarding professional experience of my life, maybe one of the most personal experiences of my life. To have this thing that you spent two years making in an attic by yourself, didn’t show anyone, and all of a sudden you are showing it to the people who are the stars and the soul of the film, and hopefully give them something that helps better their situation…you can’t ask for anything better than that. Harold came up, and all these guys I hadn’t seen in a year and a half, by the way. I spent like three days filming with them. And they were polite to me, but they weren’t super warm. They were like, who the fuck is this white boy with a camera? But after the screening they were hugging me, saying thank you, this is what we need. The bosses came up to me one by one and said thank you for not throwing us under the bus, thank you for showing how complicated our job is. It was really cool, better than any other screening I had. There were only 30 people in the room, and who knows if they’ll actually do anything, but to me that is the upper limit of what art can do.
How did the experience of being part of Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School impact you?
I sent Chop My Money to him right after I made it. He asked these very Werner Herzog questions and I gave a brief overview of how I got to the Congo. There were about 40 people there, a really wide range of filmmakers, animators, and there was a quantum physicist there. It was more an intellectual summit. Part of it was him lecturing, bringing out clips from his movies, breaking them down and analyzing them and how he elicited certain reactions, or the backstory. It was like having the ultimate director’s commentary, having him right there in front of you. He’s a truly impressive human and looks at you and devotes his attention to you and if he’s giving you the time of day, he’s giving you the full light and sunshine of the universe. That’s what it feels like.
He called on me the first day of the seminar, and it was like [in Werner Herzog voice] “We have somebody here who has been to the Congo and has begged lied and stealed his way into the front line. I would like to call upon Theo to tell his story.” And I was like, “I really don’t want to, I just came here to listen.” But he’s like, “No, tell the story.” So I briefly told the story of how I ended up in the Congo. And he just looks at me and says, “I am proud of you.” To have Werner Herzog look at you and tell you he is proud of you is like this refracted laser beam of godlike attention. So that was pretty cool. No one had seen Chop My Money yet. It hadn’t premiered anywhere, it hadn’t gone anywhere. He was really the first to see it.
What was it like to collaborate with Dan Deacon?
Dan Deacon was one of the very first people who saw this film. He has been such a huge figure for me. Some of my best, earliest memories of going to shows were going to Dan Deacon shows. He had seen Chop My Money and some of the other stuff I did, and at some point just came to me and said, “I want my music to be behind your visuals.” We didn’t have any rules about how we were going to do it. I would show him the film, we’d watch it through. He has a whole hard drive of outtakes and sketches from his different albums. He would try out different sounds, different ideas, different instruments, and we’d say, oh that works.
Watching your film, I couldn’t help but think of Chris Marker. What filmmakers have had the greatest impact on your work?
Harun Farocki is probably my favorite filmmaker. My friend Whitney showed me his work, and I was like—I didn’t know you could do that. The same with Chris Marker. That irreverence towards form and expectation – I was just like, that’s it! All the other metrics that I was trying to live up to as a filmmaker left me feeling like a failure. I was like, I’m not a great music video director. Short films don’t feel like the ultimate measure of what I’m trying to say—they always feel incomplete. So those directors liberated my expectations. If you don’t have the budget to get a helicopter, you can just use Google Maps. For me, seeing those films really made me realize that.
An archival documentary doesn’t have to look like a Ken Burns film. The use of the archive can be just the opposite of the objective historical perspective—it can be the anxious, conspiratorial perspective. All these different things which have historically meant a very specific thing to the cinematic canon—it doesn’t have to be that way. It doesn’t have to look like that. Their films made me feel really free. I was okay at that stuff in music videos, but I wasn’t so good at that. What if I took that into my documentaries so certain sections of my documentaries feel like music videos? I love 3D animation, I love that dystopian feeling. What if I took my amateur 3D animations and poured them into my documentaries and presented it as a sci-fi landscape?
Any particular films of Marker and Farocki that made an impression on you?
Sans Soleil, of course, is one of my favorite films of all time. I haven’t seen all of Marker’s work, but Level 5 was one of the bigger stylistic influences on Rat Film. It has this narrator writing this love letter to a programmer who has recently committed suicide or something, and the programmer is working on a simulation of the final stages of the American front in World War II in Japan, and is working on simulated battles in Okinawa. The film gets at the question, how do you represent tragedy in simulation? It’s really wild.
Harun Farocki is someone who I respect so much because he has transcended so many genres of filmmaking. I see my photography as part of the same practice. He’s done everything from installations to cinematic works, and he was a great writer. I haven’t even seen a fraction of the films he’s made—I’ve seen maybe a dozen or two dozen of his films – but I think my favorite of his is Images of the World and Inscription of War which is another big influence on the film. Counter Music is another favorite. And he’s got all these installations of war simulation games called Serious Games, and he’s got all these deconstructions of video games called Parallel I-IV that are incredible.
How does your photography fit in with everything you’ve done and are doing?
Photography is less work in a lot of ways. [Laughs] When you make a film, there’s all these different threads. You’ve got 24 frames a second. But with photos, you can focus on really crystallized moments and construct these abstract but focused narratives. That’s really fun. When I have a photo job, I get really excited, because that’s really fun. I love making films, but that’s a hair-tearing-out process. I love editing photos.
I’m constantly looking for images that are discovering new critical models on a concentrated scale. If you look at my portraits of riot cops from April 27 covering the week of the heaviest demonstrations in Baltimore with Freddie Gray, there are portraits of cops right on the front line as rocks are being thrown, as stores are being looted, but you don’t see any of that. I took two or three thousand photos that night, I was out there and took all these photos of pharmacies being looted, all these things. I got home and I realized that I didn’t want to publish any of them. I saw how some of those photos, they were good photos, but they were being appropriated to fit this whole media narrative of lawlessness and chaos that actually served to distract people from the very legitimate causes of anger and demonstration. So I was just trying to find images that didn’t have the agenda and were liberated from the responsibility of telling people a complete story, where they could bring their own experiences and perspectives and you might have a totally different interpretation. These cop portraits are very accessible. They are big ass faces floating in this very decontextualized soft focus world. But you’re actually able to focus on the fact that they are human beings in this very problematic world and systems of meaning.
I saw the intense reaction from both pro-police and anti-police forces, where people were like, look at our great men in blue, Baltimore’s finest, and anti-police people were saying, those fucking pigs, they look so scared. But in my photos both groups of people were acknowledged as human. That’s the space where I see my photography and my films operating.
What are you working on now?
I’m shooting my next feature in the next month or two, once the travel dies down a bit, that is the spiritual successor to Rat Film, also set in Baltimore but not about rats. A similar approach, but a more evolved look at different camera imaging technologies and how they can both mobilize and immobilize perspective. I’m looking at different camera technologies throughout history and their complex relation to vision and perception, and how vision and perception have always been a result of the tools we use to enable vision and perception. I’m looking at a lot of Ancient Greek writings on light and reality—the idea of light as a force that comes from the eyes that bound the perceiver to the perceived. I’m updating these thoughts for the world of surveillance, a world where your image representation is used to tie you into a very politicized world. It’s all set in Baltimore.
Lauren Du Graf is a Lecturer in English and Writing at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.