September 16, 2011by Tahree Lane
The Blade (Toledo, Ohio)
There are rats, and then there are rats.
Rats rooting around in your trash. Pet rats as affectionate as any dog. Laboratory rats, subjected to countless experiments.
Always fearful of rats, Holly Hey was clearing a pile of branches when two jumped out; they'd built their nest there. She prefers to see them from behind her camera, and has woven together five vignettes into a 30-minute documentary that shows the rodents in a variety of lights.
"I want to try to get audiences to think differently or at least to shift their perspective," said Hey, assistant professor of film at the University of Toledo. "We're socialized to hate some things and we lose track of that. But they were put here for a reason."
Hey's Rat Stories will air at 3 p.m. Sunday on WGTE-TV; on WGTE Family it will be screened at 9:30 p.m. Sept. 22, and at 1:30 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. Sept. 23.
Begun in late 2006 and completed in December, the film begins with a fascinating discussion about rats as allegory in Albert Camus' 1947 novel, The Plague. Jared Green, an English teacher at Stonehill College near Boston, explains how rats and the infected fleas they carried were symbols of life as well as death. Hey, 42, who lives in Perrysburg Township, commissioned an artist to draw rats as imagined in The Plague, scurrying and dying along the waterfront.
Spliced throughout are observations by a man well acquainted and fond of the long-tailed rodents: the late William B. Jackson, a renowned pest expert and biologist at Bowling Green State University. Highly adaptable, rats have incisor teeth that grow continually (and can chew through sheet metal and wood). And with a three-week gestation period, they have six to nine litters a year. They're ideal test animals, Jackson said, because they have a range of behavior, are easily maintained and handled, and provide good results. Wild-caught female rats brought into his lab had offspring that were delightful pets, expecting to be cuddled everyday.
Indeed, one of the film's segments is at a rat fancier's show, which included a competition judged much like any other critter contest. In pet rats, natural characteristics are bred out; bred in are gentleness, affection, intelligence, body structure, and attractive coloring. One rat fancier compares the differences between a wild and a domesticated rat to those between a wolf and a dog. Another, who admits having 40 pet rats, says they're like potato chips, you can't just have one.
The film takes a scientific twist in "found footage" from the 1940s in a clip from the vast, public-domain Prelinger Archives that Hey suggests her students to explore. Set in a lab, three white rats have their food gradually reduced, forcing them to fight. Within a week a pattern has developed: one has become dominant, another is intermediate, and the third is subordinate, fearful to eat even when the other two are not present.
In 2009, Hey traveled to Oregon to shoot the Drowning Rat ritual, held in springtime woods by a river. A small group who met at a Burning Man festival use moss and sticks to build a platform they call a rat. They "imbue" it with problems they want to detach from, carry it to the river, pitch it in, and cheer as it floats away.
When she lived in a lower-class neighborhood in Providence, R.I., she received a grant to make a short film focusing on a theme of "what unites us, what divides us." Rats do that, she figured: They're everywhere, but likely to be more noticeable in poorer neighborhoods where people live densely and aren't always careful about their trash.
She and a friend used Swiss cheese to live-trap a huge rat, put the cage in the back of a pickup, and took it for a ride, filming their journey from their humble street, to retail, financial, and finally, upscale residential neighborhoods with gorgeous homes near the water, where they released it. Hey sped up, slowed down, and freeze-framed the footage to point out socio-economic changes along the way.
As for her own views, rats in the wild still alarm her.
"But I've learned that my understanding of rats just like most other things in life is affected by my knowledge of said things. When I become more educated about something, my perspective tends to shift, or at the very least, broaden."
In July, the film received honorable mention in the short-documentary category at the new Los Angeles Art-House Film Festival.
Rat Stories, suitable for all ages, is distributed by the National Educational Television Association. A trailer can be seen at ratstoriesmovie.com.
For more information, contact Communications and Media Relations at 508-565-1321.