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Filmmaker Theo Anthony talks “Rat Film,” yoga balls, and the limits of nonfiction

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Earlier this year, “Rat Film” director Theo Anthony appeared on the local podcast “10 Frames Per Second,” co-hosted by City Paper Photo Editor J.M. Giordano. The conversation circled around Anthony’s film, which screens at the Parkway for two weeks beginning Sept. 15, but it also touched on, in depth, his past work and a number of topics related to craft, truth in photography, and the changing definitions of photojournalism. I thought the discussion provided a more nerd-out kind of dialogue than you’re used to seeing from City Paper and from outlets covering film. So I thought we would offer up part of this conversation so that our readers can get a better sense of what makes Anthony’s brilliant, discursive movie tick. “10 Frames Per Second” is hosted by Elena Volkova and Giordano, produced by Audrey Gatewood and John Devecka, and recorded in the WLOY studios. The conversation below has been condensed and edited, and questions were rephrased. (Brandon Soderberg)

10 Frames Per Second: Is “Rat Film” a documentary? How would you classify it?

Theo Anthony: “Rat Film” is an essay film that uses the rat as a jumping-off point into the history of Baltimore. So looking at the history of pest control—rat poison was invented in Baltimore—and its intersection with racist housing policies in Baltimore, which was also invented in Baltimore. Using these different really strange connections between peoples and places and histories to sort of give life to a map of Baltimore.

10FPS: How is that not a documentary?

TA: Well, I mean because there’s things that I staged, and I’ll be really up front about what I staged. I think if it was in an Oscar-qualifying category we’d be disqualified from the beginning, and that’s great, and I love that. I don’t have any romanticism towards these old barriers of, “Is this narrative? Is this fiction?” Or “is this narrative or is this documentary?” These are shifting fields. Parts of it are a video game, parts of it are Google Maps screenshots, parts of it are on-the-ground Vice-style documentary, parts of it are Ken Burns films. I would argue that if you brought a camera into a situation there’s always a fictional element to it. And that you have a very artificial construct through which you’re channeling reality or whatever’s out there, and it’s always through a process of artifice and manipulation and, I think, being transparent and honest about the process of that artifice and manipulation is the most honest you can be.

10FPS: What’s your perspective on plagiarism in photography and when photographers can or cannot claim an image or style?

TA: There’s so much out there in the world that I think drawing very strict boundaries and lines between what has been done before and what hasn’t [is unwise]. And I think that there’s an anxiety that would be really beneficial to release ourselves from—like the anxiety of influence. I think that only works so long as you’re just really upfront and transparent about who your influences are and what your sources are—and I think the impulse to sort of arrive somewhere or to create something and say “I did it first” is actually a real colonizing impulse, to get somewhere and plant a flag down and say, “this is us.” I think there’s also this resistance to actually just be transparent and think that the whole reason these photographers are in trouble is just that they won’t even release who [their] influences are and you know, like James Frey, it was a very similar thing. He wrote that book “A Million Little Pieces,” Oprah’s book club and all that, where he wrote this memoir about his drug addiction and his rehabilitation and there were massively fabricated parts in that. And the issue wasn’t that he fabricated it, I think, but that he just lied about the fact that it was fabricated. You know?

10FPS: So too often plagarism debates are ignoring a larger point?

TA: I think it’s a core issue that there’s so much content out there that I think it forces you to think about the structure of the content and the structure of distribution. And I think these questions of plagiarism actually force you to rethink image economies and how to actually help you rethink a healthier image economy where maybe we can benefit the people we’re documenting or benefit the people that we are, you know, taking so much inspiration from. And whether that’s cultural capital, whether that’s financial, whether that’s social support, I think that these opportunities are going to become more and more unavoidable because it’s really not possible to walk on a beach anywhere and take a sunset shot and not have that shot be like the millions of sunset golden hour shots that have come before it. So once we sort of reach this like, singularity of representation, how do we structure ourselves when we’re not just having these debates about, “Oh, which girl hugging a yoga ball is the better picture.”

10FPS: Do you consider yourself a photojournalist?

TA: No, I don’t do a whole lot of photojournalism work anymore. I have done a lot and have been published in photojournalism outlets, but when I’m approaching an event or anything like that, that I’m there to document, I have a very formal set of criteria that I’m following because otherwise I’m just like this snapping shutterbug, like pointing the camera in all directions, and I get really overwhelmed and I lose myself. So I actually have a very formal construction where, say, for the inauguration, I only took photos of rain jackets and that was my formal construct. I took photos of rain jackets and I took photos of riot policemen, like they all had these fogged up helmets and they looked like they were wearing rain jackets on their heads.

10FPS: Did your photos from the Baltimore Uprising of police officers in riot gear that were in the Sondheim finalist exhibit last year function similarly? With clear formal expectations for what you’d shoot?

TA: That was part of the body of work, yeah. I was out there shooting all these things, pointing my camera in every single direction, and I said, “You know what, I’m actually going to take a very formal approach to this.” And I actually just only began taking portraits of cops, and for me, to tie back to your question originally, those formal constructs are the result of a lot of influences and stuff but I’m never out in the field saying, “Oh, this is a Cartier Bresson shot” or “Oh, this is a Terry Richardson shot” or anything like that.

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