Of all the creative types grappling with their role in the Donald Trump era, documentarians face possibly the trickiest scenario. They're expected to respond to the world around them with relevant nonfiction stories.
But they also have to take their time to craft those stories, in a news cycle that often can rush quickly past. And on top of that, they're facing a culture in which truth jostles with fake news and alternative facts.
These dilemmas are sized up in a Sunday Calendar story, as we cover the True/False Film Festival out of Columbia, Mo. True/False is an epicenter of documentary trends, and we consistently found artists and experts seeking new ways to confront this era.
Theo Anthony, a Baltimore-based filmmaker, is one of those artists. The 27-year-old has just made a film about rats. Well, sort of about rats. His "Rat Film," a formally abstract piece, examines his home city's rodent crisis through the lens of history, science and assorted modern-day characters. While the film, which Cinema Guild will release later this year, never explicitly tells us what to think about Baltimore's approaches to handling the pest, it also soon becomes an allegory of race-relations in the city. "Rat Film" has also earned some buzz at this year's South by Southwest Film Festival.
We caught up with the director shortly after his film played True/False.
You said at the screening that you're not really a rat guy, that this is just a vehicle. Were you attracted to them for any particular reason, or…
Theo Anthony: I'm fine with rats. I just don't want to be the rat guy forever. They're really just an incredible vector across so many different people, places and history. It's not so much what that thing is — it's just a common side to all of those things. I could have made a film about public transportation. Buses: how do buses link us? Anything that links places and time could have been the subject of the film. It's just a thing that has direction and momentum that you can tag along and see what it bumps into.
But you saw in them some allegorical meaning, right? Otherwise why make a film particularly about them?
I don't think I ever saw rats as equal to humans. I try to bait people into that interpretation, only to show them how much fuzzier it is the closer you get to it. Specifically with race relations: Rats don't just happen anywhere. If you look at rats, they thrive where humans don't. To me that was really interesting. I'm never placing an equal sign — "Rats are the pest symbols of the underbelly of society." But they have been tested on, and blacks in the American city have been tested on, in terms of redlining. You learn a lot about how we treat humans by how we treat rats.
One of the joys of watching the film is also one of the confusing aspects of watching this film — figuring out the shape of it. Did you consciously want to disorient viewers?
I think it's a film that teaches you how to watch it as you go along. For the first 20 minutes you pop around without really knowing what's happening. And then at a certain point you return to the characters. I put a lot in the first cut. And then the edit became about taking away. Just seeing what the least I could have in there and still convey the most accurate picture of the story.
The film is certainly minimalist. But it's also digressive; we jump from scientists researching rats in the early 20th century to an exterminator making house calls. Was that always part of the plan, to line up different pieces without much regard for transition?
In general I want to push back on the hierarchical approach to documentary. When you're trying to order the entire structure or experience around a single topic the question is how to do that. The film itself isn't trying to be any one thing. It's a documentation of my natural process of discovery. When my producer first saw the film he said, "This film is like surfing the Internet." And that's exactly how I think and go about things. My day is clicking through tabs in a browser. I have 20 or 30 tabs on the screen and I'm just clicking through stories. Reading all these different articles via hyperlinks, I realize I'm reading all the different sides of the same shape. I just tried to convey that in the clearest way possible.
Where did this philosophy come from? Did you watch the talking-head documentaries of the past few decades and say, basically, "I want to bomb that form"?
I don't think I have anything against a traditional documentary model. I just don't like when this very subjective approach is masked as an objective pillar. "This is what objectivity looks like." I want to set all these different forms — from archival to objective to abstract — against each other. They're building each other and then sabotaging each other.
The question of how to approach a documentary feels especially relevant now with an aggressive set of policies from the current White House. How much do you feel politics should be tackled head-on — do you make a more abstract and allegorical film or do you try to be more direct?
I have problems with a lot of documentaries about social issues. I think they put forth this really hierarchical understanding of the world that just replaces one hegemony of power with another, to the point that, even the most socially conscious political documentaries, their progressive messages are betrayed by really conservative forms that don't lead us to question how things are structured or delivered. You can't just be focused on a "good" message. If you're just watching an incredible piece on a Syrian refugee on the nightly news and you're consuming it like you consume your take-home dinner, it's not doing anything, it's not bringing us closer to anything. It's a bait-and-switch, an illusion of intimacy when it's really just a slick consumer package.
And you think a lot of filmmakers and journalists are guilty of this?
The very means by which the Trump administration is succeeding, in this reality landscape, is the same means as CNN's ecosystem. And there's no investigation of this. CNN will make more money this year than they ever have before on the backs of Trump headlines. They're profiting from the same system. And there's no discussion about it, no self-awareness, no self-reflexivity about how we fundamentally engage with news and media. That's the biggest political dilemma. It's not a left or right issue. Until the form is taking the right angles, until you're aware of how it's delivered and how it's consumed, then I don't think we're going to solve anything."
It's interesting that you group CNN with this. There's an argument that the left-leaning media, and particularly progressive filmmakers, have a greater role in the rise of the age of alternative facts — that by arguing for a lack of objective truth, it's opened the door for the administration for anyone to say there's no single truth, it's all a matter of interpretation.
The think piece I always joke about is how the Sundance hybrid doc led to the rise of alt-facts. In 2012 or 2013 a lot of people thought, "We're doing great, Obama is riding strong." So then came this hybrid doc that said, "Narrative, documentary, it's all the same." They were really stylized. They showed poor people in a beautiful light. That was a bad turn in film. Denying the fact that there's a boundary between documentary and fiction is really insidious and violent act. It means anything can pass. It's a very easy slide into nihilism from there. There's now a porous, dynamic boundary between documentary and narrative.
Of course documentarians do have points of view, and probably should be able to use other techniques besides observation. Or do you disagree with that assumption?
The barometer for me when I watch is "How aware is the person of that boundary." It's one thing of you know it when you know it. You know a documentary because it happened, and you can feel it. And narrative didn't happen. And interchanging that is a slide into nihilism and really dangerous. Yes, things are subjective. But I try to be as transparently subjective as possible.
So you can shape and manipulate, you believe, just make clear you're doing it.
It's about letting the authorship into it, saying you're a filmmaker and have a history and here it is. There's a different wave of these things, and maybe it will be totally different in four years or two years or a year. But I know I'm having a lot of conversations with people right now about this. We're thinking about a lot of the same things. And I'm seeing it in a lot of different forms, like the movies of ["Kate Plays Christine" and "Actress" director] Robert Greene. How do we create a blueprint for ideas that can educate people and spread information around? It's films that are aware of the process, where we're not just telling people things but giving access to tools for how to make their own stories. It's about teaching people — not a message but how to make their own message, showing documentary isn't a castle on a hill but is accessible and anyone can do it. I think that's what we should be doing right now.