Photos | Tilapia Film / Summit Entertainment
From left: In the Fairhope Film Festival feature “Rodents of Unusual Size,” hardheaded Louisiana fisherman Thomas Gonzales doesn’t know what will hit him next. After decades of hurricanes and oil spills he faces a new threat — hordes of monstrous 20-pound swamp rats. Gerard Butler and Gary Oldman star in “Hunter Killer.”
They had me at the title of the documentary “Rodents of Unusual Size.” This amusing but thoughtful film considers the nutria, a red-toothed beast swarming the Louisiana coastline, and the efforts to contain this seemingly unstoppable invasive species. From trapping to shooting to eating to keeping nutria as pets, “Rodents of Unusual Size” finds Louisiana residents from all walks of life united in their relationships with these oversized swamp rats.
A very informative, well-animated segment tells us how nutria were brought over from South America during the Great Depression to create a fur industry and jobs along with it, and how, to put it mildly, that was not what happened. Fast forward to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and the cyclical nature of coastal erosion — it makes hurricane damage worse, and then hurricanes worsen coastal erosion.
Into this mix comes the voracious nutria, an eating, breeding machine overrunning and eroding the vulnerable coastline. A grassroots movement to kill some of these hordes of nutria is indeed just that — the nutria burrow along the coastlines though the grass roots, undermining the structure and making it that much easier to lose precious feet of land.
We meet many citizens benefiting from a state bounty program that pays $5 for every nutria tail that’s turned in. Young and old, men and women hit the swamps and cash in; for some, it’s a means to a short-term goal, like one guy who says it helps pay for his college education. For others, it’s a family affair and a lifelong career.
Delacroix Island resident Thomas Gonzales is the latter. A scrappy, outspoken bon vivant and expert dancer, Gonzales has a philosophical attitude toward his prey and the swampy symbiosis they have enjoyed throughout his life. Gonzales sees himself and the nutria as survivors, and feels grateful to the animal for allowing him to provide for his family. In a film encompassing many ecological and economic realities, his reverence for what he kills to keep himself alive is profound.
Skip the concession stand for maximum survival of the more shudder-inducing moments in this film, as some of the piled up carcasses are pretty hard to stomach, not to mention the ghastly sacks of disembodied nutria tails, valuable though they may be. Unfortunately, some of the least appetizing segments of “Rodents of Unusual Size” are about the efforts to make them just that: food.
Renowned New Orleans chef Susan Spicer describes her attempts to create dishes out of nutria, dryly admitting her efforts to “freak out the staff,” and does allow that it’s a lean and versatile protein option, akin to rabbit meat, perhaps one we’ll revisit if it’s ever the last protein source on earth.
Kermit Ruffins, jazz musician, actor and marvelously gravelly narrator of parts of this film, barbeques nutria in a very on-brand bath of Abita beer outside his concerts to promote consumption of the irredeemably gross-looking animals. A Louisiana official describes other efforts to promote the meat in foods such as tamales, gumbo — of course — and even nutria Slim Jims, which is a terrifying concept and a great band name. Let’s just say these ideas have yet to take off.
Others try to promote nutria fur, which is what got Louisiana into this mess in the first place, as a sustainable fur option. A group called Righteous Fur puts on fashion shows with jackets, hats and even a tantalizingly described, but tragically unseen, pair of nutria fur leg warmers.
Mostly, though, people just shoot them, saw off their tails and turn them in for five bucks. An animal control officer makes some very insightful points about the class-level distinctions in responses to nutria infestations. He points out that wealthy people prefer to have them trapped alive and taken away from places like golf courses; they prefer not to get their hands dirty.
In each encounter and interview in “Rodents of Unusual Size,” you find a subtle or profound point or detail that you will think about long after you’ve squirmed through the visceral moments spent with these long-tailed, red-toothed rodents. This is a funny, gross documentary of unusual depth covering ecology, identity, culture, class and family through the lens of the life cycle of a gigantic, disgusting rat.
Catch “Rodents of Unusual Size” only at the Fairhope Film Festival, Nov. 8-11. Much more on the full festival lineup to follow.