“When I grew up, this was a jungle. Now it’s a disaster.” That line opens the final entry in Stranger Than Fiction’s Fall 2018 Season, Rodents Of Unusual Size. One of the film’s many colorful characters, Thomas Gonzales, hails from Delacroix Island - a tiny hideaway on the southern Louisiana coastline, which is slowly evaporating thanks to climate change and a creature called nutria - gastly-looking orange-toothed swamp rats that resemble “trying to breed a german shepherd and a chihuahua.”
The film features a deep dive into the historical context of how this particular species settled along the coastline, and how they’ve been an invasive species since their inception. Several members of the community remark that “This is an invasion like you’ve never seen, of big ol’ swamp rats,” and in particular one states, “Hurricane Katrina took my house, but it didn’t take the nutrias.” These gigantic orange-toothed animals eat up coastal wetlands, destroying the landscape, and threaten the very existence of the human population in the area. A crisis has emerged during the last two decades in Louisiana, as nutria are no longer hunted for their fur, and therefore have no natural predators. It’s for this reason the local government enacted a Nutria Control Program back in 2002 that offers $5 for every nutria tail turned in. As one of the proponents of the program explains, “This is the time of the year where there is no crabs and there is no shrimp” - and the program provides significant income for those living off the water.
From there, the film relates how the community has taken to the nutria - in a variety of different ways. Local chef and musician Kermit Ruffins has found residents have quite the taste for them, however “we don’t tell them it’s nutria. We tell them it’s chicken. We don’t tell them until the next day so they don’t regurgitate.” Local artisan Cree McCree formed a company named Righteous Fur, creating a mission to save the wetlands by asking folks to wear nutria fur. Cree explains “Nutria is the ultimate sustainable fur. I like to think of Righteous Fur as a giant recycling project.” Lastly, the film shows us an affluent community located on a golf course, where these large-toothed animals are - believe or not - sometimes taken in as pets. As local wildlife expert Michael Beran describes, “You get into a city environment, you’re gonna have people here that like them. Rich people don’t want me to kill them, they want me to trap them.”
At the same time, the filmmakers spared no detail in helping the audience experience this community by including music from the stunning (and local) Lost Bayou Ramblers. Their vibrations ebb and flow throughout the film, unveiling and illuminating the threads that link together the lives impacted by the nutria. Because really, this film is less about the nutria and more about the vibrant and resilient expression of human nature that makes Louisiana the effervescent, fabled state that it is.
As the film moves toward its conclusion, it takes a look at the hard toll the nutria have taken on this fabled state - as well as the Gonzales family. Tommy (Thomas’ son) has been forced to move his family off Delacroix Island, much to the dismay of his mother and father. He knows the future isn’t there, and is happy his children are choosing other professions. “I’m comfortable being the last one doing this, because it’s getting harder and harder. I want to stay in Louisiana, but you never know.” His mother Joan explains further “The strip of land where you’re standing is getting thinner all the time.” But it’s Thomas, the family patriarch, who espouses the true message in the film’s final moments. “I’m not attached to material things. I’m attached to this place. We got something in common, me and the nutria. We just wanna survive. They may try to get rid of us, but we ain’t leaving. We gonna stay here until we go.”
In the Q&A following the film, co-director and cinematographer Jeff Springer remarked on the incredible spirit the Gonzales family - and Thomas in particular - has. “His family has lived on this island for 200 years. And for Tommy, his son, to move 12 miles up the road is a really big deal. This island that he’s on will be gone in 20-30 years. So this area’s just going to be completely decimated.” He described Thomas as “kind of the perfect documentary subject, because he doesn’t really care at all that you’re making the film about him. There’s no ego at all… it was great because he was just so pure and so honest.”
Rodents Of Unusual Size will air on PBS series Independent Lens on January 14th, 2019, and in the meantime, all other progress can be followed at http://www.rodentsofunusualsize.tv.