Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Rats!


By C.J. Hirschfield

Quinn Costello’s new documentary film has it all: food, fashion, music and joy. The fact that its subject is 30-pound rodents that are taking over Louisiana – and encroaching on California – just makes it that much more interesting.

Rodents of Unusual Size will have its East Bay premiere on Oct. 2 at 7 p.m. at the New Parkway Theater. As soon as I heard about it, I marked my calendar.

Poster for "Rodents of Unusual Size"


Quinn, an Oakland-based director and editor, borrowed the title of the film from one of the perils in the classic Princess Bride book (by William Goldman) and movie (released in 1987); his style is reminiscent of the work of the Bay Area’s late documentary filmmaker Les Blank (Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers, God Respects Us When We Work, but Loves Us When We Dance). Quinn acknowledges both influences. He came of age around the time The Princess Bride film was released: “It was epic and mythic, and it inspired my imagination – and some nightmares,” he says.

As for Les Blank, “His curiosity gave him an ecstatic and euphoric film style,” says Quinn. “I’ve seen his Louisiana movies many times – he’s a huge inspiration.”


Described as river rats or giant swamp rats, nutria originally came from South America, where they are called coypu. They live in burrows alongside stretches of water, feed on river plant stems, and were brought to North America primarily by fur farmers. Their bodies range in length from 17 to 25 inches, their tails from 10 to 16 inches; a single nutria can weigh as much as 22 pounds.
Nutria in the wild


Quinn’s first encounter with nutria occurred a number of years ago, when he was in New Orleans for New Year’s. A friend got a job eradicating nutria, which are devastating the Louisiana wetlands. Designated government stations across the state were paying $5 for each nutria tail turned in.

What struck Quinn most were all the different kinds of people involved in the nutria “business”: hip fashionistas who created clothing from nutria fur clothing and jewelry from nutria teeth (which are orange, eww!); chefs who cook nutria meat; and the folks who’ve chosen to hunt nutria, including a delightful septuagenarian named Thomas Gonzales.

Quinn Costello, far left, filming nutria hunter Thomas Gonzales


It was the wide range of interesting characters, and the compelling coastal Cajun culture combining music, food and down-home hospitality, that made Quinn want to capture Louisiana at this particular moment in time. 

He partnered with fellow filmmakers Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer, with whom he had wanted to collaborate for some time.


Left to right: co-directors Chris Metzler, Jeff Springer, and Quinn Costello


Quinn knew that original music with a Cajun flavor would be key to the film’s success, and he’s delighted that Louis Michot and the Lost Bayou Ramblers agreed to compose the lively score, which has a wonderful punk edge.

And then there was Nooty, a pet nutria who was trained to make certain shots possible. “She was wonderful,” Quinn recalls. “She hit her marks and was even kind of a diva in her own way.” She has attended some screenings in Louisiana, and has even walked the red carpet.

Quinn insists that all of the filmmakers are animal lovers. “I’m a good Bay Area liberal, and not a hunter,” he says. But he explains that a huge number of species, including birds, fish and other wildlife, that depend on vanishing wetlands will suffer if nutria are uncontrolled.

I asked him if he thought organizations such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) might object to the film and its subject, particularly when it’s screened in Oakland. He pointed out that the Sierra Club has co-hosted a number of screenings, appreciating the environmental importance of controlling the nutria population.

Rodents of Unusual Size has been featured in more than 50 film festivals, and will have its television premiere on the PBS “Independent Lens” program in January 2019 (check your local schedule).

Lest you think that these rodents of unusual size have nothing to do with you, guess again. They’ve recently arrived in California’s Central Valley, and they seem to like it just fine there. Quinn’s film might soon be required viewing in these parts. 

Watch trailers for Rodents of Unusual Size.

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C.J. Hirschfield has served for 16 years as executive director of Children's Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation's oldest storybook theme park.

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