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Tuesday
Jun262018

THE RATS THAT ATE LOUISIANA (AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM)

Taking its title from the mythical swamp beasts that stalk the heroes of Rob Reiner’s beloved fairy-tale The Princess Bride, the documentary Rodents of Unusual Size is the latest in the ‘eco-statement factual filmmaking’ genre. It is the story of the ‘nutria’, an introduced species of South American swamp rat that has decimated the Louisiana wetlands and must be controlled via humane methods. But for co-directors Quinn Costello, Jeff Springer and Chris Metzler, what presented itself was a grander story; one of resilience, determination to overcome adversity and learning to co-exist in harmony with non-indigenous settlers, albeit the four-legged, buck-toothed variety.

“We kept kicking around ideas about how best to approach the story and at one point we just decided that we needed to jump on an airplane and head to Louisiana,” says Metzler, talking to SCREEN-SPACE ahead of the films screening at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival in July. The documentary playfully establishes how the nutria came to the U.S. mainland, crafting animation sequences that depict their importation for pelt and meat marketing. Once unconfined, however, the animals bred rampantly as feral vermin with no natural predator to keep numbers in check. Australian audiences will be able to draw clear parallels, a connection not lost on Metzler. “Of course, we have always been a big fan of Mark Lewis' Cane Toads: An Unnatural History,” says the filmmaker.

Once in ‘The Bayou State’, the production was inspired by the uniqueness of the setting. Recalls Metzler, “You get taken in by the beauty of the area, the sheer number of nutria that were destroying it and the dedication and joy of the people who were tackling the issue.” The young directors recognized that to tell the story of the nutria is to also tell the story of the locals with whom it shares the swamp lands and increasingly, the population centres. “Despite [us] being outsiders, we were trusted right off the bat,” says Metzler. “It is unique to that part of the country, their inherent hospitality, pride in their culture and good humor.” (Pictured, right; directors Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer)

Central to the narrative was local identity Thomas Gonzales (pictured, left), a hardened fisherman who has turned his skills towards hunting nutria for the bounty offered by local government. “When we met him for the first time, we were on his boat checking out the area within the first 10 minutes,” says Metzler. Having survived hurricanes and oil spills, Gonzales knows a threat when he sees one. “Nutria like to breed and have lots of babies. As Thomas says, ‘As long as there are two left, there's going to be millions more,’” cites Metzler, whose camera captures how Gonzales and his family maximizes each kill as a source of income and sustenance.

Rodents of Unusual Size is frank in its depiction of the culling and re-use of the nutria, an experience that challenged the three lads, each born-and–bred city folk. “Looking through the lens creates a barrier, so you feel a bit detached. But any given hunt can yield as many as 300 nutrias, so you look up from the camera [and] you are quickly brought back to reality,” admits Metzler. Over time, however, the clear necessity of the eradication program outweighed personal reactions. “Witnessing the destruction they cause and considering the animals [that] are going to suffer, we started to understand and accept the hunting. Over time, nutria numbers have dropped from 20 million down to about 5 million,” says Metzler, who points out that plague proportions mean animal welfare groups have accepted that culling is unavoidable. “P.E.T.A. has been silent on the issue as many see it as the lesser or two evils,” he says.

After the journey undertaken to tell the story of the nutria and the land and people who share their existence, the three filmmakers remain divided into ‘for-and-against’ nutria camps. “I think they are fuzzy and cute and want one as a pet,” beams Metzler, “[but] Jeff and Quinn want to barbecue them up.”

RODENTS OF UNUSUAL SIZE will screen Wednesday July 11 as part of the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Ticket and session details can be found at the official website.

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