“I wanna tell y’all a tale that’s crazier than hell,” says narrator Wendell Pierce at the beginning of “Rodents of Unusual Size,” a highly entertaining documentary that screens at 7 p.m. Sept. 28 at the New Jersey Film Festival Fall 2018 in New Brunswick.
Pierce — known for acting on TV series such as “The Wire,” “Treme” and “Suits” — sketches the story quickly and efficiently. In the ’30s, at the height of The Depression, rodents called nutrias — 20 pounds each, with webbed feet and big orange teeth — were imported from Argentina to Coastal Louisiana and bred, the idea being that people could have jobs turning the pelts into fur coats and hats. Unfortunately, a large storm hit and some escaped into the Bayou (or they got out some other way; no one knows for sure).
It wasn’t a big problem at first; people would hunt them in the Bayou, and then sell the pelts. But when fur became unfashionable in the ’80s, the hunters stopped hunting, and the nutria population shot up astronomically. With each one of the rodents, now numbering in the millions, chomping up lots of vegetation every day, coastal erosion was accelerated in an area where hurricanes and other environmental problems are causing massive erosion, anyway.
We learn all that in the first seven minutes of the 69-minute documentary. The rest of the leisurely paced film is devoted to spending time with trappers who are still at work, killing nutria, and exploring some of the efforts to keep the nutria population down.
The government-sponsored Nutria Control Program seems to be a big hit: trappers are paid $5 for each nutria tail they bring in. And nutrias are promoted as pets, and as food. Supposedly, they taste like rabbits.
“With rabbit, the stigma is that they’re too cute; that’s not a problem with nutria,” says one chef.
Nutrias are also being used for clothing again, with an environmental twist: A selling point is that keeping the nutria population down can help preserve the Louisiana wetlands
Along the way — and with the Lost Bayou Ramblers providing a buoyant Cajun soundtrack — co-directors Chris Metzler, Jeff Springer and Quinn Costello interview numerous trappers and one tail assessor; take us to a church where the congregation recites a Prayer for Hurricane Season (“We live in the shadow of a danger over which we have no control,” goes one part of it); and visit a nutria-skinning competition and a joyful Mardi Gras parade.
“We serve a fun-loving god,” says a local deacon. “He loves to see his people have fun, in a good, wholesome way, because we know there’s gonna be tough times. … we enjoy partying because some things that have impacted our community is beyond our control. Coastal erosion, oil spills, hurricanes, causing our life to be decimated in a way that we may never recover. And so when God blesses you, it’s going to be a party.”
The nutria problem hasn’t been eradicated, but we’re told that through all these efforts, it’s under control. There was once somewhere around 25 million of them; now, there are just a few million. A certain stasis seems to have been achieved.
“He’s my buddy,” says one old trapper, speaking of nutrias in general, “because we got it in common: Mother nature tried to get rid of us, but couldn’t do it. We still here. We ain’t leaving … we gonna live here till we go, me and my buddy. …
“I tell you what, he paid my bills and supported my three kids. Can’t deny him. He was a good friend.”
“Rodents of Unusual Size” will be shown at 7 p.m. Sept. 28 at the New Jersey Film Festival Fall 2018 at Voorhees Hall #105 at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. It is double billed with another documentary, “The Kingdom: How Fungi Made Our World.” For information, visit njfilmfest.com.
It will also be shown. Oct. 12 at 7:30 p.m. and Oct. 13 at 8 p.m., at Cinema505 in Montclair. Visit montclairfilm.org.