One of the most admired films by visual artist Joyce Wieland (1930–1998), Rat Life and Diet in North America tells the story of rats (actually pet gerbils) held as political prisoners in the United States (their jailer a cat), who make a heroic escape to Canada. Although this narrative is recounted through wryly worded intertitles, Wieland’s film nonetheless conveys a sense of menace and urgency. For these protagonists “Canada” becomes a utopian destination, promising abundance, pleasure, and peace. The film was created in 1968, when international student protests against the military and capitalist establishments, the rise of the New Left, and worldwide demonstrations against the Vietnam War were commonplace. During this time many young American men fled to Canada to avoid being drafted into the military.
With this work Wieland updates the animal fable found in many cultural traditions, where the misadventures of animals are understood as moral or political allegory. In Rat Life and Diet in North America, the act of crossing the Canada-U.S. border is construed in political terms. Somehow the sight of rodent escapees on Canadian soil, happily munching on fruit and flowers, stands in for the desires of a peace-loving, anti-war, countercultural generation and the determination to forge an alternative to the dominant American ideology.
This Spotlight is excerpted from Joyce Wieland: Life & Work by Johanne Sloan.