Independent Film Festival of Boston 2018: Rodents of Unusual Size, by Sarah Brinks
I took my first trip to New Orleans last fall and on a gator tour where I had my first exposure to creatures called nutria rats. The locals pronounce it more like “nutra.” The gator tour guide explained as he whisked us around the swamp in his fan boat, that nutria is an invasive species of rodents that are doing great harm to the ecosystem if the Louisiana wetlands and that he and his sons would regularly hunt the nutrias. The documentary, Rodents of Unusual Size, is a thorough examination of the nutria problem and what Louisiana has done to try to reduce the nutria problem and preserve their wetlands.
Narrator Wendell Pierce explains the history of the nutria over some engaging animation sequences. The nutria was introduced to Louisiana in the 1930s for the fur trade from Argentina. They escaped to the wetland and since they breed ever three months and the fur trade has severely diminished, the has population exploded. The eat the local vegetation and are burrowers so they have had a devastating effect on the wetlands. As they eat all the vegetation the top soil becomes destabilized and the land washes away into the water. The vegetation provides natural protection for inland areas of Louisiana so storm effects are more severe.
The film follows different native Louisianans as they are impacted by the nutria. The main focus of the film is Thomas Gonzalez and his family. Gonzalez is one of the best nutria hunters in the area. The Louisiana fish and wildlife department offer five dollars for nutria tails as proof of death. This program has allowed many locals to earn a livable wage by killing the rats. The nutria program has become part of how people earn a living that community. Most of the hunters do it for the money but also recognize that they are helping the environment as well. Thomas Gonzalez was a great choice for the lead subject of the film. He is completely devoted to his community of Delacroix Island. He has generations of history and decades of experience in the wetlands. He is also funny, knowledgeable, and engaging to watch.
A key reason why Rodents of Unusual Size is as compelling a documentary as it is is because the directors Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler, and Jeff Springer look at the nutria problem from so many angles. The Gonzalez family is certainly the main story line, but we also follow a man in Animal Control who has to trap and kill the nutria in the city and local neighborhoods. We see a local musician who has lived in New Orleans his whole life and lost his house in Katrina as he cooks nutria at his restaurant and tries to convince people it is good meat to eat, despite how it looks on the outside. We meet members of the local Native American tribe and see that they refuse to just toss the carcasses into the swamp. They sell the tails and pelts of the nutria to a local furrier. The furrier then supplies a local art collective called Righteous Fur. Nutria is considered a sustainable fur, since they are hunted no matter what. The local artists make jewelry from the nutria’s orange teeth and clothes and hats from the pelts and sell them at fairs and local stores.
One of the most powerful themes of the film is the heartiness and spirit of the Louisiana locals. They know that the next storm could be the one to wipe them out or destroy their lives. Never less they stay and the survive. They embrace life and the good times and they do their best when the bad times come. There is an interesting psychology behind a community whose future is so unstable. You see how the local native tribe, the Cajuns, the church, and many more deal with that uncertainty. The Gonzalez family look through photos of their home before Katrina and they cannot help but cry at the memory of it. That spirit is consistent through each person’s story that we see in the film.
Rodents of Unusual Size manages to pack an incredible amount of information, perspective, and heart into its 71 minute runtime. This is a documentary about community, environmental sustainability, and culture as much as it is about a giant intrusive rat with orange teeth. So far it has been on of the highlights of the festival.