Down in the Dumps
In his book In Search of Melancholy Baby, Russian emigre novelist Vassily Aksyonov discusses his move to America and his various reactions to the country. He and his wife settle in Washington D.C., and it is only a matter of time before he takes note of the city’s legendary rats. He writes, “At first we refused to believe our eyes. Hefty rats running around the capital of the United States of America? No, they must be pets of some kind giant gerbils, perhaps. Then we found a dead ‘gerbil’ next to our car. A rat, no two ways about it…. In the Soviet Union the situation would have been declared an emergency by the municipal department of epidemiology, but in America no one appears particularly put out” (76).
The final shot of D.C. filmmaker James M. Felter’s Rats is a visual equivalent to the first sentence quoted above. On the Fourth of July, an enormous burst of fireworks turns the Washington Monument and Capitol Building into beautiful silhouettes and as the light fades, the camera pans right and tilts down to a street, and after a beat, a rat scurries across the street. Felter shares Akysonov’s outrage and sense of irony, but as a resident of D.C., he would disagree with the novelist’s observation that no one in America feels “put out.” Felter feels very “put out” by the rats. But more than that, as his film makes plain, he sees them as an omnipresent symbol for problems in the nation’s capitol.
Felter’s film focuses on Willard Street in Northwest D.C., a respectable street in a city where many areas are run down, and is divided into three sections, titled onscreen: “Life and Death on Willard Street,” “Where the Food Chain Collides,” and “Trashed.” In part one, we see the rats eating and thriving off trash, particularly in one dumpster. Residents complain about the waste and a professional exterminator comes to poison the area around the dumpster. Two guys shoot rats from their back porch with pellet guns in the most amusing portion of the film (they take this seriously: we even see one of the men buy a new rifle later). Their self-consciously satirical “hunter” poses on the porch are quite comical, as is their “you kill it you bag it” policy with dead rats. In part two, we follow two homeless men who not only must compete with the rats for food but must literally live with them. And in part three, interviews with trash collectors and a trash-transfer station official reveal that trash from surrounding states is brought into D.C., and that the huge piles of trash perversely provide environments conducive to rats’ continued existence and reproduction.
The film also covers more topics than Willard Street and the three-part narrative structure outlined above. Viewers come away with a fascinating look at those who live not only on Willard Street but in the whole of D.C. For instance, one entertaining woman at a recycling protest decides for no apparent reason that she is going to break a bottle to show her displeasure with D.C.‘s ineffectual recycling programs. She picks out an empty wine bottle and with a flourish throws it at a pillar… which the bottle misses completely. She turns and laughs into the camera, almost as though she knows her protest is as likely to effect change as her bottle tossing would.
Then there is the spokeswoman for PETA who, in the middle of her interview with Felter, requests that he stop because, she says, “I think someone is drowning over there.” She goes over to a trash can, camera following, and we see a rat struggling to stay afloat in water at the bottom of the barrel. She tips the can over and tells us the rat is more scared of us than we are of him, as the shivering rodent slowly wanders off to eat trash, make babies, and spread disease. Her exaggerated, yet sincere, concern is almost comic and provoked some laughter at the screening I attended. After the screening, Felter and producer/co-editor Tracy M. Cones were on hand to answer questions and stated quite clearly that they believe with the PETA spokeswoman in the “sanctity of all life.” It is also difficult to argue with the woman’s action, since she notes that to kill a rat in the current environment simply makes room for another rat to live.
At the same time, one can hardly argue that one should let the rats be, since Felter also mentioned during the Q&A, that he might not have undertaken the project had he know in advance the number of diseases that rats carry. Yet his film actually manages to elicit concern for rats with two on-screen deaths. In the first, a rat is caught and killed in a trap: its final twitches elicited gasps of concern from the audience. Later, a rat shot by the rat snipers gasps its last breath while Felter provides several close ups of its foot as it stops moving forever. Even more than the first death, this one had audience members recoiling in horror and sympathy. When asked about the scene, Felter revealed to the audience that, when the sniper saw it, he put down his (new) pellet gun and gave up sniping.
The director takes pride in this accomplishment, because he recognizes and clearly presents the fact that change must occur on the individual level: citizens must personally choose to, among other things, be responsible for their refuse. The “a” in the film’s title logo is done up like the symbol for Anarchy, but I can not say whether Felter professes to be an anarchist or a libertarian (anarchist-lite) or what. He does make it clear that government or other current authorities are not the answer to the problems presented by his documentary. Felter and his camera join a woman protesting for better recycling programs as she confronts (then) D.C. Mayor Marion Barry. Mr. Barry is not very communicative and seems indifferent to the problems of his city. The film appears to hold Barry responsible for the government’s atrocious waste disposal system, but more importantly, it demonstrates that the problem is not Barry’s alone, and that a society which looks to Barry (specifically, and generally) for guidance, much less leadership, is in trouble.
The director observed after the screening that everyone in the film blames someone else. A man who lives on Willard Street blames a single house with a lot of trash around it. As the camera follows the two homeless men down Willard Street’s alley, the two men stop and look at the trash cast all over the back portion of the property and note that this trash loose and all over the place draws rats to the area and gives them food and places to live. The homeowner needs not only a proper waste receptacle, but as well, the willingness to use it. But the problem is no more this homeowner’s fault than it is Mayor Barry’s, the trash collector’s, or the animal lover’s. The problem is everyone’s waste and how we all tend to it.
Rats raises the age-old question as to whether art can (or even should try to) affect viewers’ behavior. As I mentioned above, Felter claims his film made a man quit shooting rats. He also said the film resulted in a photo opportunity where city officials visited Willard Street to revel in their quick fix solution of poisoning the rats and pouring concrete. Cones added that since making the film, she has taken to calling people out when she sees them drop trash on the ground. She didn’t hang around after the screening to fuss at anyone in the audience, however. I probably don’t need to tell you that as I left the theater, candy boxes and D.C. Film Fest ballots were strewn all over the floor. I don’t need to tell you because you already know it and when you see the film, your theater will also be littered with trash, as will the parking lot where your car sits. I picked up a few of ballots off the floor to stuff the ballot box (“vote early and often”), but I confess I did not pick up any candy boxes. Somebody else will, right?