“From what history does the future dream?” wonders the narrator of Theo Anthony’s All Light, Everywhere, a documentary that interrogates the surveillance reflex behind our technologies of looking and recording.
The question comes somewhat pre-answered: by the time it is asked, Anthony’s film has tallied extensive evidence of the overlaps between observation and control as they played out in the development of early camera technologies. He cites astronomer Jules Janssen and his photographic revolver from the early 1870s, modelled on the Gatling gun; Etienne-Jules Marey and his 1882 chronophotographic gun, soon enough trained on colonial subjects in French Senegal; Alphonse Bertillon and his anthropometric classification of police detainees; and Francis Galton and his ‘pictorial statistics’ – composite-photo typecasts that led Galton to his theory of eugenics.
Meanwhile, in the still-dreaming present, Anthony follows the bliss of two hawkers of cutting-edge surveillance technology. In Scottsdale, Arizona, taking corporate assertions of transparency at their word, he is given a PR-guided tour of the headquarters of Axon Enterprise, Inc, formerly known as Taser, manufacturer of electroshock weapons and now runaway leader in the deployment of police body cameras. He tests the tech (and its limits) in a mall, captures the police’s internal rationale for body cameras in a training session, and – with the Axon PR now in overdrive – stages a multi-cam Axon-branded arrest scenario in the desert.
Back home in Baltimore, Anthony also attends to the efforts of Ross McNutt, president of Persistent Surveillance Systems, to sell citizens on his “God’s-eye view” plane-mounted live-feed spy cams – somewhat belatedly, since the tech had previously been deployed in 2016 without disclosure even to the mayor. Now he presents a genial face in community liaison meetings, offering blandishments about providing an “unbiased witness” in “troubled cities”. As Anthony’s voiceover says over an Axon promotional video, “It feels like watching a corporation dream out loud”: the claim is objectivity, the dream is omniscience, the end game is power. One thinks of Jeremy Bentham’s all-seeing panopticon, but also of Naomi Klein’s insights in No Logo into corporate aspirations of weightless, unburdened power.
Anthony speaks of a “starting momentum” more than a starting point, but the film partly grew out of the reaction to the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody in Baltimore in 2015, and “watching these body camera technologies move in, as a rare point of agreement between police and activists – the idea that because we see and understand it, we’ll be able to hold police accountable.”
Anthony, who had previously mapped Baltimore’s fraught history of social division and political provision in his eclectic essay investigation Rat Film (2016), throws cold water on the tech makers’ claims to serve truth without bias, but here he also scratches at his own filmmaking gaze: “Every film is in part an autobiography of its maker,” the narrator declares, and we see him setting up shots, we see his editing timeline; most electrifyingly, we see his subjects challenging his gaze, particularly in an all-Black community liaison meeting debating the PSS pitch, in which a beautifully clued-up Haitian immigrant questions the (white) filmmakers’ agenda.
The film’s streak of self-doubt extends into our phone interview: “I look back and I cringe at the ways we approached the film in the beginning,” Anthony says. “Making a film about looking and seeing, this impossibly vague question – who am I to think I have anything new to say about this? But I think we always re-centred ourselves around our process of discovery: we weren’t making a definitive history of anything, we were making a documentary that contains the traces of our collisions with ourselves and this history. So that grounded us.”
No such doubts for Steve Tuttle, the Axon PR rep, who puts on a rollicking show for Anthony’s camera, whether spouting two contradictory claims about transparency without missing a beat, eulogising the sounds of economic progress from his firm’s production line, or gunning up as a field agent for the staged arrest demo. He’s absurd but ingenuous – a very human figure of fun.
“I don’t think that gotcha style of journalism or documentary filmmaking with its straw-men arguments really benefits anyone, no matter the political motive,” says Anthony. “We’re always looking for these Voldemorts or Darth Vaders behind the curtain, and it blinds you to the way power really functions, which is with the complicity of a lot of well-intentioned, on the surface pretty nice people without a lot of incentive to change in a system that is deeply problematic. I try to lean in to that complexity. You know, Steve would be giving us restaurant recommendations, and then switching gears and talking about how these body cameras are tools for the people. It’s just absolute bullshit. And I think he believes everything he’s saying.”
Speaking of uber-villains, I put it to Anthony that the lessons of the film are that more visual literacy and a humbler understanding of perspective would discourage our public representatives from aspiring to the all-seeing gaze of Lord of the Rings’ Sauron. It turns out that Anthony himself is now standing for local office – as a city councillor in Hudson, upstate New York, where he has been campaigning on police reform and trying to rewrite body-camera and use-of-force policies for the town.
So he tells me a story about educating the county’s public safety committee – heretofore, in Anthony’s telling, a visually illiterate talking shop and front for a conservative sheriff – with a screening of his film and a local newspaper interview. “The very next meeting all of the committee members showed up knowing how these body cameras work, citing the literature we had sent them, and the whole tenor of the room changed – it crossed any left/right divide and was just like, ‘Oh, you’re actually informed now.’ And it was like a metonym for a larger project, right – who controls the flow of information? Who controls the frame? As soon as you introduce a bit of visual literacy or criticism, you can talk about what was at stake. It’s hyper-local and I’m not saying I changed everything, but it was cool to play some role shifting that conversation in real time. It’s rare to have that experience when you’re making art.”
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