The stagnant air reeks of garbage, feces, and death. Bad enough to burn your nose and throat and make you gag. In the alley behind the fast-food joints at Florida Avenue and 18th Street NW, the vile smell mingles with the odor of food turned to vomit in the dumpsters. The putrid vapors hang between the buildings, enveloping the trash palms and telephone poles in an invisible but palpable haze.

D.C. filmmaker Jim Felter stalks the cobblestone with his movie camera. Behind his yellow eyeglasses, his face takes on a cast of maniacal curiosity. He’s looking for man’s mortal enemy. He knows Satan’s beasts are gnawing, scratching, skittering furtively nearby. Finally, Felter finds what he’s looking for: the festering corpses of two huge rats.

“Those are alpha rats!” he gushes. “Look how big they are!”

Felter knows an alpha rat when he smells one. Since October, Felter and his film crew of three have spent countless days, $10,000, and 50 hours’ worth of footage on safari across the city, filming Rat, a documentary, and, at times, political rant, about the dominance of the repugnant rodents in the District. It will be his second indie project as a director. His first, a rambling camp farce called Run of the House, played at the 1992 Berlin Film Festival. He hopes to enter Rat in the next Sundance Film Festival.

After nine months in the field, Felter has become the Jane Goodall of D.C.’s rats, an expert at tracking and identifying them. He knows that where the rats go, the flies always follow to eat their leftovers, and leftover dead rats. He can spot their burrows in the dirt, their claw marks in the rotting wood of a restaurant’s back porch. Felter has canvassed the city, from the nasty alleys of Florida Avenue to the Fort Totten dump, braving the stench and the risk of getting some awful rat-borne disease, to piece together the rat’s crucial saprophytic role in the District’s food chain.

“On the big screen,” he predicts proudly, “this is going to make Godzilla look like shit.”

It won’t help the image of the District of Columbia, either. There are an estimated 1,000,000 rats living in almost every obscurity of D.C., from the squalor of forgotten streets and alleys to the Bush White House swimming pool. The animals form an insidious majority that, if granted suffrage, would swiftly overtake the District government. In a sense, though, the rats have already staged their coup, grabbing power from a city administration that can’t cope with the tons of trash it generates daily. Though his mission for the film is rather ambiguous, an apocalyptic metaphor lies at its heart: “D.C. is a thrown-away city,” Felter says.

Nearly everybody in D.C. has a rat story, which has allowed Felter to assemble a cast of bizarre co-stars. There’s a banker in town who spends his evenings looking over his alley, shooting rats with a BB gun for sport. There’s a woman who belongs to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals who, during a location shoot, runs off to save a rat drowning in a trash can. There’s another woman whose dog Mia hunts rats and has a special rat howl. And there’s an Adams Morgan couple, Dave and Earl, whose back yard became so infested with rats they had to pave it over entirely. Dave detests the rats intensely; Earl once had a pet rat and maintains they’re at least as human as any of Dave’s cats. Felter captures their conflict on film.

“I hate to see them put the poison baits down,” Earl laments. “I feel compassionate toward those little critters.”

Felter too has developed sympathy for his title characters: “There are better ways to exterminate them than what we [currently] do.” Popular poisons cause rats to ulcerate massively and bleed to death. Felter can’t stand the thought of it. “I believe in animal spirits,” he says. Yes, they’ve “killed more people than all of man’s wars combined,” Felter notes, and they are believed to be the only other animals besides human beings that commit genocide. But Felter, in a dawn of inspiration at a South Dakota sweat lodge last summer, decided that, cinematically speaking, the rat has not gotten its due.

Nobody, for instance, had ever captured what rats really look like, Felter says. “In the National Geographic special I saw on rats, they’re all groomed. Not anything like the ones we’ve seen.” He finds rats that are popping with veins, some covered in tumors.

He likes to get tight shots of the rats whenever possible, to make them look more “human,” he says. In the relatively posh surroundings of his borrowed editing room at Richfield Productions in Georgetown, he zeros in on a rat writhing toward death in the jaws of a trap. “Look at that little hand!” he coos. “Look at how nice his nails are!”

They’ve also got an instructive social order in their colonies. When a colony runs out of food, it becomes “stressed,” and anarchy breaks out. Females, who are able to reproduce at 3 months and deliver up to 12 litters of up to 13 young a year, become infertile. Alpha males cannibalize the betas; sexual assaults are common.

“I don’t know if National Geographic would necessarily talk about the rats’ homosexual rape tendency,” Felter says.

The District’s rat scourge begins with its residents, Felter explains, the instant they throw scraps and wrappers into the kitchen trash. We waste too much and dispose of our garbage lazily and haphazardly, he notes, unsealed, strewn in the streets. D.C.’s trash haulers are, he finds, overworked and poorly paid; the Fort Totten dump has become ground zero, the key feeding and breeding site, in the rodent ecosystem. It’s a never-ending banquet served up by humans. Yet we blame the rats for their abundance.

As Felter has discovered the underlying problem and formed his thesis, he’s had trouble keeping a lid on the scope of the film’s subject. He says he can’t make a movie about rats in D.C. without accounting for the city’s desperate garbage situation. With a digital video camera, the film crew followed a D.C. trash truck for two days, listening to trash collectors dis their inept department and remark on “maggot juice.” To mount an indictment of the District’s waste-handling system, they hung out with William T. Page of D.C. Vector Control, a general in the city’s badly outgunned army against vermin, who wears a rat pin on his lapel, and a host of perplexed District officials, environmentalists, and neighborhood busybodies. Together, the experts paint an alarming picture of the rat’s rise to power in Washington.

None tell the tale as well as its narrators, two homeless D.C. men who dive into dumpsters alongside the rats for their dinner. Billy Harris, 44, tells of a friend from the streets whose corpse became a buffet for a rat colony. Thirty-two-year-old Juvenalis Joseph makes poetic observations on the rat race while standing on a dumpster. “They have a brilliant perspective on trash and rats,” Felter observes.

Felter’s perspective, however, is all over the place; his footage will be tough to pull into a cohesive film. His documentary is trying to mix nature movie, art film, horror flick, and polemic into one shocking, titillating, humanizing, educating, profitable tour de force, only to tell us that trash attracts vermin?

“Editing is going to make or break this project,” Felter acknowledges. For every rat you see, legend has it, there are nine you don’t. The same concept applies to Felter’s shifting concepts for the movie. For every idea that makes it to the screen, there will be dozens more you won’t see, they’ll wind up dead on the cutting-room floor.CP