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‘The Challenge’ / ‘Rat Film’ (reviews)

Produced by Fabrazio Polpettini
Directed by Yuri Ancarani

Produced by Sebastian Pardo, Riel Roch Decter
Written and Directed by Theo Anthony

By coincidence, or serendipity, two exceptional documentary films make their US premieres in limited release within the next two weeks.

Both have long played festivals, and received a variety of acclaim and awards.  Both have animal subjects at their core, yet neither are completely, necessarily about them.  Both push the definition of documentary, while redefining how to be entertained and informed.


Beginning in a very limited engagement at New York City’s Film Society of Lincoln Center, and hopefully rolling on to more screens, Yuri Ancarani’s THE CHALLENGE was my favorite film at SXSW this past March.  So far this year, it’s the best film I’ve seen, period.

Billed as “the anthropology of a contemporary desert,” it’s a poetic, often hypnotizing expose of passions, traditions, and competition in contemporary Arab culture. At the film’s heart is the practice of falconry, a tradition with a history over 40 centuries old.  The old world, desert-based culture of the Bedouin people is juxtaposed with a group of wealthy Qatari sheikhs who fancy themselves falconers outside of their urban, privileged lifestyles.

We get, often literally, a birds-eye-view, void of narration and remarkably unobtrusive to the subjects on screen.  A pet cheetah rides shotgun in a Ferrari racing through the desert.  Blinged gold iPhones allow bidding on falcons during a televised auction. Tinted window SUVs race through the terrain of sand dunes.  These, and other sequences, play out along one another, giving a very intimate look at never-before captured rituals of extravagance.

Director Ancarani, who is co-credited as cinematographer, is an Italian artist known for his acclaimed shorts internationally.  Clocking in at just over an hour, The Challenge feels feature-length, in part due to its ambitious combination of visual style.  Of particular note is the film’s beautiful score from Lorenzo Senni and Francesco Fantini.

Whereas “H is for Hawk” in The Challenge, R is not necessarily for Rat in the Baltimore-based RAT FILM.

Not to be confused with last year’s traditionally structured, and arguably more informative Morgan Spurlock documentary RATS, Theo Anthony’s Rat Film favors abstract reflection over rat revelation.

Anthony’s approach is a mixture of expository, observational, poetic and sometimes participatory documentary filmmaking that channels the best of Les Blank or Errol Morris.  At this film’s heart is the journey of the Norwegian rat – destination Baltimore.  It’s buried deep in Rat Film’s purposefully disjointed narrative, this time juxtaposed against the history of the city, and the humans that shaped its current situation.

“There’s never been a rat problem in Baltimore, it’s always been a people problem,” states the Baltimore “Rat Rubout” program’s Harold Edmond early on.  If anything, this wise theorist serves as our real tour guide through an often surreal experience, offering personal opinions on heaven vs hell, good vs evil, and rats vs man.

Factual narration carries the more straight-forward, informative elements of the movie, but it’s displaced by a decidedly uncanny style. The cold delivery of information from narrator Maureen Jones was apparently edited to sound like the computerized voice-assistants we’ve grown accustomed to via Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa.

It’s in this initial narrative where we’re introduced to a creation myth that bookends the film, placing rats as the reason for the universe.  From there on, the film diverges into an overall commentary on Baltimore’s sociological development, with some ugly history of the city’s bureaucratic urban planning.  In the past, older white males map a city based on race, social status, and other circumstances of welfare.  In the present, we view Baltimore residents of varying social status use their individual methods of killing, or in one case keeping, rats.

As with The Challenge, an emotional case is built, aided by a complex sound design (in this case featuring music by Dan Deacon).  This is exciting documentary filmmaking, with metaphors bravely challenging the subjects both on and off-screen at any moment.

Rat Film will make its initial release on September 15th in New York, Baltimore, Vancouver, and Chicago.  Additional major markets will roll out thereafter.

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