All Light, Everywhere – Four Ways
The live-editing workshop is an integral part of each year’s Critics Campus, and this year, four members of the cohort were assigned Theo Anthony’s documentary All Light, Everywhere. After penning their reviews, the participants sat through an intensive revision session with MIFF publications and content manager and former Metro editor Adolfo Aranjuez. Read their final reviews below.
Theo Anthony’s essayistic debut feature documentary, Rat Film (MIFF 2017), explored the historical relationship between rodents, racial segregation and scientific experimentation in Baltimore, eventually expanding out from his hometown to consider global imaging technologies. Since then, the filmmaker’s eye has become increasingly drawn to optical apparatuses. While his 2019 ESPN-commissioned short, Subject to Review, investigated the effect of instant replays on tennis, his second feature, 2021’s All Light, Everywhere, returns to the sociopolitical concerns of his debut.
When Anthony made a smartphone recording of a rat in a bin behind his Baltimore residence, he was unaware that it would become Rat Film’s opening shot. All Light, Everywhere begins even closer to home, with footage that was clearly planned: we see Anthony looking into the camera lens, showing us the optic nerve. “Where the world meets the seeing of the world, we are blind,” reads the intertitle below. This paradox of human sight sets up the film as an investigation of the biases ingrained in technologies of sight within a self-reflexive frame.
Demonstrating the bias of police body cams forms the film’s central project. To do so, Anthony employs his signature style, interweaving connected yet disparate threads to create a composite living image as affecting as it is cerebral. In one thread, we are taken on a guided tour of the headquarters of Axon – the producer of the Taser and 85 per cent of body cams sold in the US – where the company spokesperson’s sunny new-age inflections quickly become chilling. Other threads take the shape of historical investigations, charting the inextricably linked development of optical and military technologies.
Back in Baltimore, police officers sit through training on how to use their body cams, not hiding their boredom. When the person leading the session requests that the cameras be turned off, Anthony takes the opportunity to reinforce a point made earlier: body cams only show what a police officer sees, not what they do. While the cameras are off, we hear the audio from body-cam footage of an altercation between a civilian and police. When the visuals are reinstated, the only insight we have into the events is what we glean from the conversation between the officers in the room.
When Anthony places himself in front of the camera several times, he not only reveals the film itself as artifice, but also shows us his body: he is white. Wherever his camera goes, so too does whiteness. At a neighbourhood consultation in which all the community members seen are Black, one man objects to the idea that airborne surveillance by the ominously named company Persistent Surveillance Systems will benefit his community. What’s more, he protests the presence of cameras at this meeting, to which he had not consented.
The subjects of much of Anthony’s documentary work to date have been Black. In the epilogue, the urgent and necessary critique driving All Light, Everywhere gives way to a more lyrical though no less self-reflexive mode, which may be read as an acknowledgement of this fact. When it comes to the potential violence of filmmaking, Anthony suggests that it is not so much a question of what is beyond the frame, but rather of the relationship between who is behind the camera, who is in front of it and who is watching. Whether this final segment is a performative admission or a first step towards renegotiating this relationship is a question that only his future filmmaking practice can answer.
All Light, Everywhere
Theo Anthony’s All Light, Everywhere arrives at a surprising final scene: footage of Baltimore high schoolers making their own films for a media class. This feels almost completely divorced from the nearly-two-hour documentary we’ve just watched, a film about the limits of human perception and the history of photography as a story of surveillance and violence. An intertitle introduces the footage – mostly of students debating how they’ll make their own TV pilot – as “a prayer for all the possibilities outside these failed frames”.
Ending on your own ‘failure’ as a filmmaker is a bold move, especially given the remarkable cohesion of this ambitiously lyrical documentary. At its core is an exposé of the US police’s increasing use of body cameras in the wake of high-profile incidents of police brutality, which occur disproportionately against Black people and people of colour. The film focuses on Baltimore, where Freddie Gray died in 2015 from injuries sustained while in police custody.
Anthony’s access to both a Baltimore Police Department training session for the cameras and to the headquarters of their manufacturers, private surveillance and taser company Axon, is astonishing. A spokesperson guides us through the company’s base of operations – a shiny, soulless space with open railings, reminiscent of a Bond villain’s lair. He speaks of the company’s values of “transparency” and “candour”, projecting a world where accountability and peace are best achieved through Axon’s products.
These scenes alone would make for a revelatory, zeitgeisty documentary, but All Light, Everywhere has a larger, more discursive scope. A disembodied female narrator acts as a third party, detailing how 19th- and 20th-century advancements in photography were used in military technology, and pointing out that the traces remain in our language around ‘shooting’ film. Her many aphorisms (“An act of seeing is always an act”) constitute a broader message: claims to objectivity, whether made by a surveillance company or a documentarian, are acts of violence.
Perhaps to acknowledge this complicity, Anthony draws attention to his film’s own materiality, as footage of a scene’s set-up is often kept in, or images suddenly shrink and we see them within the editing software the filmmaker used. These techniques culminate in a pivotal scene: a small Baltimore community meeting, where predominantly Black locals are listening to a proposal for a private company to fly a drone above crime-dominant areas, offering a deterrent. One person – his face blurred, presumably not having given his consent to appear – reveals his frustration that the film crew are all white, saying he knows of Black filmmakers who could’ve been involved if they had bothered to ask.
This exchange highlights an uneasy tension in All Light, Everywhere, which could be accused of using Black pain to create a detached essay on photography and power, and this may explain why Anthony includes the apparently discordant school scene at the film’s end. As the (predominantly Black) students debate how to shoot a scene, or how to write a narrative, Anthony’s documentary exudes a counterpoint warmth and enthusiasm for the possibilities of photography when it is used not for surveillance, but creation.
All Light, Everywhere
The first shot of All Light, Everywhere takes us behind filmmaker Theo Anthony’s eyeball and focuses on his optic nerve. An onscreen caption tells us that the function of this nerve – made up of retinal axons – is to connect the eye to the brain, but the brain receives no images where the nerve connects. “At the exact point where the world meets the seeing of the world,” the caption states, “we’re blind.”
All Light, Everywhere questions the authority of the lens – of both eye and camera – as an apparatus of sight. Anthony delves into the concepts of planet gazing, criminology and police brutality to examine the ‘blind spots’ that sight technologies encourage. This exploration demonstrates how the camera, invented to overcome the limitations of human observers, in fact reflects and reinforces what its observer already wishes to see.
Focusing in part on astronomer Jules Janssen’s The Transit of Venus (1874) – regarded by some as the world’s first ever motion picture, and which depicts the titular planet’s trajectory across the sun – Anthony’s documentary reveals how the camera was seen as a scientific device intended to capture absolute reality. This idea, however, is challenged by his subjects.
Steve Tuttle, a spokesperson for the aptly named Axon Enterprise – a technology company known for its market-dominating body cams – believes that the camera should mimic what a police officer sees. Others in the documentary assert that the camera doesn’t take sides, and that it captures a “God’s-eye view”. Across the film, each of Anthony’s subjects becomes a caricature of something tangibly systemic. He demonstrates their leverage over the communities with which they interact by curating their screen time to include moments before and after official takes – snippets of yawning, texting and waiting. Each participant has their own ideas surrounding objectivity; they represent, to varying degrees, the volatility of ‘truth’.
By amalgamating documentary styles, Anthony demonstrates that the ethics of video technology use are inextricable from the motivations of people. His vignettes reveal how humans have manipulated the recording device: from its beginnings as a humble cylindrical machine resembling a telescope, the camera soon adopts the shape and mechanics of a rifle used in the American Civil War. Decades later, it’s used to examine criminal activity, which, through the biased analysis of criminals’ faces, paves the way for the study of eugenics. And now, after more than a century, Axon Enterprise strategically programs its cameras with certain limitations to capture versions of reality that the judicial system wishes to uphold. What is regarded by Axon as a groundbreaking piece of technology is simultaneously touted as a replica of the human eye. And, much like the human eye, it comes complete with its own blind spots.
All Light, Everywhere is kaleidoscopic in its exploration. It searches beyond the axons, beyond the camera’s frame, to show us that what truly blinds us to the truth is our own fallible judgement.
All Light, Everywhere
By Louise Cain
The mechanical eye is not to be trusted – or so posits documentary filmmaker Theo Anthony in his expansive new feature, All Light, Everywhere. The film focuses on the use of surveillance technology in policing, with forays into the history of photography, warfare, astronomy and eugenics. With such a wide scope, All Light, Everywhere could easily become overwhelming. But Anthony skilfully pulls focus back to the blind spots of the lens, revealing how the ‘all-seeing eye’ of the camera serves those in power and shields them from scrutiny.
The film deftly explores how audiovisual surveillance equipment weaponises selective blindness. There is no objective gaze, no mechanism that entirely corrects for human fallibility. The body cameras worn by police, whose footage is accepted as ‘objective’ in court, capture an incomplete picture of events as they don’t show the actions of the officer.
Anthony weaves together shifting narrative threads to expose the staggering reach of surveillance technology. One moment, we’re eavesdropping on a heated debate at a community meeting in Baltimore, where Black residents are voicing their concerns about the violation of being continuously watched; the next, we’ve zeroed in on bored police officers listening to a body-cam training demonstration, chewing their nails and rocking back on their chairs.
At the Axon headquarters in Arizona, Anthony and his team follow spokesperson Steve Tuttle as he enthusiastically shows them around the company, pausing for dramatic effect at the iris scanner and Star Trek–inspired open walkways to proclaim, “There are no secrets here.” Moments later, he gestures to a giant black cube that houses the hidden research and development team. From their panopticon perch, they can look out over the office through tinted windows without being seen. Tuttle’s all-American showmanship is made for these moments of humour, yet his self-implicating assertions that his cameras can “change behaviours” are an unsettling reminder of his company’s intrusive power.
The soundscape of All Light, Everywhere conjures a similar sense of unease. Dan Deacon’s hypnotic synth score plays over long takes of factory-line mechanics superimposed on footage of excited crowds watching a solar eclipse. When paired with these overlaying shots, the crescendos at times feel heavy-handed. Add to that the ponderous interjections of narrator Keaver Brenai (“From what history does the future dream?”), and All Light, Everywhere starts to lose itself in its philosophical musings. Yet Anthony always guides us back from these more meandering historical reflections to nuanced observations grounded in the present.
“Every image has a frame, and every frame excludes a world beyond its edges,” intones Brenai, later in the film. In its epilogue, Anthony reveals that he has himself excluded material that originally formed the core of his work. He had planned to focus on a high school media class in Baltimore making their own television pilot. By drawing attention to these scenes – as omissions – Anthony does attempt to expand the limits of his own frame. The decision pays off, as the scenes of excited teenagers strike a heartening final note. The camera has the potential to tell the stories that matter to them, and, in their hands, the mechanical eye might be turned on its own blind spots.