Filmmaker Theo Anthony hates the idea that his documentaries should “dig deep”. It’s an assumption that’s made about his work – and the work of many non-fiction filmmakers, for that matter. But the metaphor bothers him.
“It sort of fits the language of oil extraction,” he says. “That you have to drill below the surface, you have to dig deeper, you have to really fracture your subject to find visible truth.”
Instead, he likes his films to be open-minded, curious, wide-ranging. “What I’m trying to do is understand the system or the process,” he explains. “Not necessarily looking at a particular thing and squeezing it as hard as I can, but seeing how that thing interacts with other things. I try to understand the context.
In short, Anthony has an endless fascination with the world and how it works. This fascination served him well: his first two feature films, rat movie and All the light, everywhere— freewheeling, intellectual and experimental documentaries, both filmed in Baltimore — have a cult following and have been revered by critics. (the new yorker Film critic Richard Brody told me that his films had “an empathetic curiosity…a bold imagination and cinematic x-ray vision.”)
But Anthony affirms that the cinema, which he adores, is not necessarily his first passion. “I just think it’s the best way for me to learn about the world,” he says with a shrug. “It’s at the root. [Filmmaking] was a means to an end.
Anthony, who is angular and handsome, with cropped hair and a quiet intensity behind his eyes, speaks to me via Zoom from his studio/woodshop in the Catskills, about 10 minutes from Hudson, New York, where he currently lives with this fiancée, filmmaker Zia Anger. (He has strong ties to Baltimore and says he will always call it home.) Woodworking is a relatively new passion for him.
“Whatever Theo does, he really get in,” says Riel Roch-Decter, half of the team at the Memory film studio that produces Anthony’s work.
Anthony describes how his passion for woodworking evolved. “During the first summer of the pandemic, I built a fence for our garden and felt, like, this sense of accomplishment that I honestly haven’t felt in any other art form or practice in so long. a long time,” he said. “Because I was outside, I was talking to my neighbors more, and all of a sudden I had this fence and I realized it would be better if my neighbors came inside this fence and were hanging around, but we needed a table, so I’m building this table. We also needed chairs around the table, so I started building these chairs and benches. And I got really obsessed with woodworking , but also how it was so connected to our lives. I was building that environment and also inviting my neighbors over for dinner. It became that community practice as well as a creative practice.
This is also how Anthony “constructs” his films. One idea springs from another, a process of evolution, openness and discovery. His life had a similar quality of seeking. He is very embarrassed to be “the man behind the camera” and the artificial power it gives him. He thinks a lot about power structures and his own role in them. Sometimes he finds it exhausting. This is why woodworking is so necessary. And that’s why he recently explored another career path. But we’ll leave that twist for later.
Theo Anthony was born in 1989in Washington, DC, and grew up in Annapolis. His mother, Iris Krasnow, was a reporter for the UPI news service and a professor at American University. His father, Charles Anthony, is an architect. As a child, Anthony was passionate about mathematics, physics and astronomy. “I was a big science fan,” he admits. But he also enjoyed reading novels (Kurt Vonnegut and Jack Kerouac were his early favorites) and creating and looking at art. While he loved living on the water in Annapolis and attending the progressive The Key School, he was also drawn to Baltimore, its vibrant music scene and pockets of creativity, especially Whartscape, the underground arts festival co-founded by Dan Deacon.
“[FILMMAKING] IS THE BEST WAY FOR ME TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE WORLD. THIS IS AT THE ROOT OF IT.
“Artistically speaking, creatively speaking, I was drawn to this kind of collective, community-based artistic creation in the midst of a city as complex and historic as Baltimore,” he says.
He was also learning to make films, in a way. His friend Ben had loads of video equipment and they were filming their buddies riding skateboards in Annapolis, getting low to the ground, following them on longboards, just for fun. Anthony knew photography and image making, but editing was a whole different story. When he attended Oberlin College, where he double majored in creative writing and film studies, he realized he wanted to make movies himself, but almost had to start from zero. He uploaded tutorials to YouTube.
After graduating in 2012, he moved to Baltimore, where he lived first in Station North and then in Waverly. When his New York-based girlfriend was assigned to travel to Africa with the magazine/broadcasting company VICEthey pitched a series idea about covering the war-torn region so they could live there together.
“We kind of oversold our qualifying. I was extremely naive,” he says. The editors of VICE bitten and sent the couple to Africa. It was like being thrown into the bottom of a swimming pool.
“I have a lot of complicated feelings about this project,” he admits. “In the end, they sent me and my partner to Congo with no experience in an active conflict zone to cover a war that I don’t think we were suited to cover.”
It was a formative period, to say the least. Anthony calls it his version of film school. He absorbed everything he could from the most experienced journalists he worked with, like a “barnacle”. But he also began to question his role there, his part in an industrial complex of journalists who would travel to a country and claim to understand it in any meaningful way.
“I’m still learning lessons from that experience, and a lot of my work now – sort of looking at how images work, how they flow, and how they maintain certain power structures – comes from my time there,” he said.
Even today, he hesitates to focus on the danger of this experience. “Something I’m very aware of is that I don’t want to glorify or make my experience in Congo seem more dangerous or heartbreaking than it actually was,” he says. “By being there, you realize that people are just living extremely normal lives. Like, yes, there were dangerous situations. But I’m always cautious about amplifying that perspective.
Shortly after returning from Congo, around 2014, he and his girlfriend broke up. Anthony was back in Baltimore, now working at Woodberry Kitchen, tending the tables. He was still making short films and videos on the side. But he had no clear career path. Then one of his short films was accepted at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). He quit his job at Woodberry and decided to focus all his energy on filmmaking.
“I remember saying, ‘I have to take this chance.’ I was in a pretty lucky position to be able to do that,” he says. “I could always go back to the bus tables. I took the leap to become a full-time filmmaker.
The risk paid off. At TIFF and other film festivals, he began to make connections that continue to be treasured to this day.
But it wasn’t until he returned to Baltimore that the seeds of his first feature took root.
If Anthony’s experience in the Congo was one of the most formative of his life, arguably he had an equal and opposite experience back home during the Freddie Gray uprising in 2015.
“I had traveled all over the world telling the stories of others, and for the first time during the uprising I saw the whole world come to my backyard to tell the story of Baltimore,” he explains. he. “When the media came and occupied Baltimore after the uprising, I couldn’t criticize them because they were a mirror of me.”
Like these Congolese journalists, the abundant press was only interested in the most sensational and less savory aspects of Baltimore. The experience also gave Anthony some perspective on what little he knew about his own city. “I felt like if I was going to live here, I really should know more about where I live.”
At first the idea of rat movie didn’t seem to naturally overlap with the thoughts swirling in his head about Baltimore, segregation and exploitation. It had simply come to him one day when he saw a rat crawling out of a garbage can in his garden. “I took out my iPhone and filmed this rat in the trash can. That’s literally how the movie starts,” he says.
Then he discovered the Rat Rubout team, which sounded cool, “like the Ghostbusters, for rats.” And then, because he was checking out the Rat Rubout team, he found out that rat poison was literally invented in Baltimore. It’s the kind of chance relationships Anthony stumbles upon. But then again, maybe they’re not so coincidental, maybe you just have to watch. And, of course, you can’t talk about rats in Baltimore without talking about poverty. Anthony was reading two books at the time, that of Dawn Biehler Pests in town and Antero Pietila Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City. He found the books oddly bound.
“Having these two investigations going on [in my head] about the pest control and the racist housing policies that were designed in Baltimore, I realized it was the same issue,” he says. “It was just this organic evolution. It was about finding these lines of parallel research until they were no longer parallel. Until they are the same thread.
The resulting movie, rat movie, relates to rats, of course. But it’s also about all those other things – the poverty, the racial segregation, and the endless resilience of the people of Baltimore. He has a proven score of none other than Dan Deacon.