Of all the creative types grappling with their role in the era, documentarians face possibly the trickiest scenario. Theyre 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, theyre facing a culture in which truth jostles with fake news and alternative facts.
These dilemmas are sized up in as we cover the True/False Film Festival out of Columbia, Mo. True/False is an epicenter of documentary trends, and we found artists and experts seeking new ways to confront this era.
Theo Anthony, a Baltimore-based filmmaker, 27, has just made a film about rats. Well, sort of about rats. His Rat Film, a formally abstract piece, examines his home citys 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 Baltimores approaches to handling the pest, it also soon becomes an allegory of race-relations in the city.
We caught up with the director shortly after his film played True/False.
The Times: You said at the screening that youre not really a rat guy, that this is just a vehicle. Were you attracted to them for any particular reason, or
Theo Anthony: Im fine with rats. I just dont want to be the rat guy forever. Theyre really just an incredible vector across so many different people, places and history. Its not so much what that thing is its 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. Its 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 dont 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 dont just happen anywhere. If you look at rats, they thrive where humans dont. To me that was really interesting. Im 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 its a film that teaches you how to watch it as you go along. For the first 20 minutes you pop around without really knowing whats 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 its 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 youre trying to order the entire structure or experience around a single topic the question is how to do that. The film itself isnt trying to be any one thing. Its 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 thats 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 Im just clicking through stories. Reading all these different articles via hyperlinks, I realize Im 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 dont think I have anything against a traditional documentary model. I just dont 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. Theyre 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.
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 dont lead us to question how things are structured or delivered. You cant just be focused on a good message. If youre just watching an incredible piece on a Syrian refugee on the nightly news and youre consuming it like you consume your take-home dinner, its not doing anything, its not bringing us closer to anything. Its a bait-and-switch, an illusion of intimacy when its 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 CNNs ecosystem. And theres no investigation of this. CNN will make more money this year than they ever have before on the backs of Trump headlines. Theyre profiting from the same system. And theres no discussion about it, no self-awareness, no self-reflexivity about how we fundamentally engage with news and media. Thats the biggest political dilemma. Its not a left or right issue.
Its interesting that you group CNN with this. Theres an argument that the left-leaning media, and particularly progressive filmmakers, have a greater role in the age of alternative facts.
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, Were doing great, Obama is riding strong. So then came this hybrid doc that said, Narrative, documentary, its 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 theres a boundary between documentary and fiction is really insidious and violent act. It means anything can pass. Its a very easy slide into nihilism from there. Theres 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. Its one thing of you know it when you know it. You know a documentary because it happened, and you can feel it. And narrative didnt 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 youre doing it.
Its about letting the authorship into it, saying youre a filmmaker and have a history and here it is. Theres 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 Im having a lot of conversations with people right now about this. Were thinking about a lot of the same things. And Im 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? Its films that are aware of the process, where were not just telling people things but giving access to tools for how to make their own stories. Its about teaching people not a message but how to make their own message, showing documentary isnt a castle on a hill but is accessible and anyone can do it. I think thats what we should be doing right now.
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