Sundance award winner All Light, Everywhere illuminates the surveillance state

·4 min read

Over the course of Theo Anthony’s documentary/cine-essay All Light, Everywhere, we are treated to an extensive tour of Axon Enterprise (formerly Taser International), a “less-lethal” weapons company that, as of 2017, held an 85% market share of body camera technologies among U.S. police departments. PR spokesperson Steve Tuttle describes how the company’s design is meant to mimic the human eye: In contrast to body cameras that use, for instance, infrared technologies, Axon’s are designed not to convey anything beyond the police officer’s perspective. As Tuttle explains: If the body cam shows more than a person can see, then how can its footage be used to prove, in a court of law, whether or not a police officer was justified in their use of lethal force? Tuttle tosses off the statement unthinkingly, but it carries a whole host of frightening assumptions about policing, justice, and the role of technology in both. In All Light, Everywhere—which won a U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Nonfiction Experimentation at this year’s Sundance—Anthony is out to uncover those assumptions.

To accomplish this, Anthony has amassed an impressive arsenal of tangentially related material. The tour at Axon, by turns absurdly hilarious and downright chilling, forms one major thread of All Light, Everywhere. Another is centered mainly around Baltimore, the filmmaker’s home city, still haunted by the unlawful murder of Freddie Gray. This thread comprises passages of police being trained to use Axon’s body cameras, as well as scenes with a drone-technology entrepreneur, Ross McNutt, who is trying to sell both the city and local citizens on his aerial surveillance system in the name of lowering crime. In the latter half of the film, McNutt’s company becomes the subject of a testy local meeting, which is as revealing, in its way, as the discussions in Frederick Wiseman’s recent City Hall.

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More indicative of All Light’s overall construction, however, is its third strand, which traces historical efforts to displace (or even eradicate) human subjectivity when capturing, measuring, and representing the world. Operating along the lines of a discursive film-essay, All Light, Everywhere steps through a variety of experiments developed to this end: scientific expeditions to measure the 1874 transit of Venus, Étienne-Jules Marey’s pioneering motion studies (carried out in the French colony of Senegal), and Francis Galton’s “composite portraiture” (not to mention his eugenics work), among others. In all this, Anthony’s clear cinematic model is German filmmaker Harun Farocki’s seminal 1989 Images Of The World And The Inscription Of War. Laying bare all the human constructs and “blind spots” that allow images to either “speak” or remain silent, Images refutes, in its provocative and singular way, any notion of photographic neutrality. Further, it demonstrates how such notions are bound up in existing, and often unjust, structures of power. Anthony applies Farocki’s methods to newer technologies like drones, body cams and AI, but his underlying ethos is the same.

Despite the judiciously chosen material, however, All Light, Everywhere lacks something in terms of conceptual organization. In some cases, the issue is thudding obviousness: After we are told that “someone, somewhere is putting this world together,” we get a desktop shot of Anthony’s editing software to remind us that this movie, too, was put together by someone, somewhere. In other moments, though, the film fails to productively distinguish between a range of disparate contexts. It links the structuring theme of the “blind spot” to such a breadth of material—from human vision to camera design to structural issues of police reform and abolition to judicial procedure—that the term all but loses its specific utility, detracting from the force of Anthony’s individual strands of inquiry. (His 2019 documentary Subject To Review, made for ESPN’s 30 For 30 series, benefited from applying a similar style to a relatively focused subject: the use of instant-replay technology in tennis.)

All Light, Everywhere is about both making and questioning connections, but by the end, its methods feel not so much productively protean as frustratingly noncommittal. (However well-intentioned, its coda registers mainly as a studied rhetorical device.) Still, there’s something to be said for a film that offers myriad paths for further exploration. The only irony is that, for all of its formal convolutions, All Light, Everywhere ultimately succeeds in more conventional terms: that is, on the strength and specificity of its chosen material.