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Rats in the Ranks (1996)


In fly-on-the-wall style, Rats in the Ranks exposes the machinations behind the political process as Leichhardt Mayor Larry Hand tries to get the numbers to win his fourth term as mayor. As the main character, Hand is driven, charismatic and determined to keep his mayoral robes. The real ‘rats’ however are members of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) caucus who are in conflict. They can’t decide on who should be the candidate to go up against Hand. If they can agree, they have the numbers to defeat him. Hand himself is only too aware of this. ALP head office suggests that if they can’t decide then they should pick the candidate out of a hat. But it’s not that easy.

Rats in the Ranks follows Hand as he plays the numbers game, manipulating the votes in his favour, while his challengers for the number one job tear themselves apart trying to work out a way to beat him. The film is not only a study of excruciating political process but a drama of Shakespearian proportions, both funny and tragic in equal measure.

Curator’s notes

On its release, Rats in the Ranks seemed a departure for filmmakers Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson who were best known at the time for their award-winning trilogy of films about people in conflict over their native land. Shot in the highlands of New Guinea these three films – First Contact (1983), Joe Leahy’s Neighbours (1989) and Black Harvest (1992) – all involved battles over power and ownership. Rats in the Ranks is not so different, except that this time the filmmakers are looking at political battles on their home turf.

Following the countdown to the election of an inner-city Sydney council mayor, Connolly and Anderson turn the events into a compelling real-life drama. The mayor, Larry Hand, is a charismatic main character, driven and ambitious and cunning as a rat himself. We watch as he plots and plans, always – we suspect – one step ahead of his opponents.

The other characters in this unfolding drama are equally riveting – Deputy Mayor Janet Butler, who has ambitions herself; her caucus sidekick Trevor Snape; and her main opponent for the ALP caucus vote, Neil Macindoe. Finally, there’s an older woman (Kath Hacking) who, because Larry hasn’t returned her phone calls, decides to remove her crucial support for him and nominate for the position herself. The political machinations and soul searching that follows is the stuff of great filmmaking (see clip one).

Rats in the Ranks is an observational film in the great tradition of filmmakers like Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles brothers. It’s a fly-on-the-wall approach to storytelling which depends for its success on being able to recognise individual human drama as a microcosm of a much larger story. In this case Connolly and Anderson pick a small-time council to tell a much larger story of political process and human foibles.

In one sense the film is a study of one man’s ambition and the lengths he is willing to go to achieve it. But the strength of their portrait of Larry Hand lies in the classic subplot provided by the conflict between his opponents. It is the age-old story of divide and rule. The character of Kate Butler, the deputy mayor, who is torn between her desire to support Hand and her loyalty to the caucus, is echoed time and time again in higher levels of political power games. And it is this conflict that finally, once resolved, decides the outcome of the election and the film (see clip two).

The filmmakers tell their story without the use of a narrator; they want the story to tell itself. But they are skilfully manipulating the storytelling through the editing and most importantly setting the tone with the choice of music. The film opens with a grand classical music score playing against the images of the modest Leichhardt Town Hall and its council rooms. The self-important portraits of previous mayors are in sharp contrast to today’s rabble of councillors. The stage is set for humour as well as drama. The importance of music in the filmmakers’ work is further developed in their next documentary, Facing the Music (2001), and in Connolly’s more recent award-winning Mrs Carey’s Concert (2011).

One of the most necessary ingredients to the success of this type of filmmaking is obtaining unlimited access to the characters. Rats in the Ranks is a great example of this. The scenes of Hand alone in his office, working out his strategy and counting the numbers while talking to the camera, give us great insight into his character. Connolly keeps the camera rolling even when the talking stops and it is then that Hand reveals his most intimate feelings though an expression or gesture that cuts through the bravado (see clip one). The scenes with the ALP caucus are also extremely revealing of how, for the members, political compromise and conscience compete with each other (see clip two).

The film has a clear narrative, with a beginning, middle and climactic ending, that sweeps us along with its suspense and humour. My only criticism is of the initial set-up which I found confusing. Trying to work out how the election works, who’s who, and what they stand for, takes some time and, although it all pays off at the end the film, demands a concentrated effort in the first third.

Rats in the Ranks was released in Australian cinemas on 5 September 1996 and ran theatrically around the country for five months. It has screened at more than 40 film festivals and has won multiple awards, including the Silver Plaque for Social/Political Documentary at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1996, the 1996 Critics Choice Award for Documentary at the Sydney Film Festival and the Logie Award for most outstanding documentary series/program in 1998. Ray Thomas won the 1996 AFI Award for Best Editing in a Non-Feature Film for his work on the film.