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“From what history does the future dream?” Theo Anthony’s meditative, revelatory feature documentary All Light, Everywhere navigates the contextual histories of surveillance technologies – from instruments that observed the transit of Venus in 1874 to the Axon body-cameras affixed to the chests of many of today’s police officers – all with the intent to engage with conceptual questions surrounding the assumed objectivity of the camera.

Bringing attention to Anthony’s own subjective authorship, the film dutifully begins with an intimate recording of his own eye and a reflexive analysis of the blind spot that exists deep within its centre. It’s an apt metaphor, and underscores the film’s thematic occupation: how to make sense of the idea that observation from one perspective can present a clear universal truth.

The question of objectivity is a cornerstone of the documentary practice – Bill Nichols’s 1983 seminal essay The Voice of Documentary outlined the priorities of the ‘self-reflexive’ documentary mode, principles that occupied the likes of Chris Marker and Errol Morris in conveying their skepticism of the filmmaker’s voice and demonstrating the nuances involved in attempting to capture objective truth.

In All Light, Everywhere, the focus is not just on the ability of cinema to adequately represent reality, but to confront the wider political questions around who controls images that are captured, whom those images protect, and whom they are weaponised against. A radical reimagining of documentary tradition, Anthony’s intertextual, poetic and philosophical approach marks him as a masterful witness of the new millennium.

Researched during the wave of new police reforms and surveillance outfittings in the wake of the unrest that followed the murder of Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015, the film charts what Anthony shows is a fundamental link of camera to weapon. Just a few minutes into the film, a tour of the Axon Enterprises office and assembly line begins, during which it becomes evident that, alongside the Axon body camera, the company also produces military-grade weapons and technologies as well as its model stun-gun unit, the Taser.

The film weaves a series of associative connections, guiding the audience through the historical precedents of the camera-weapon apparatus – detailing, for example, Jules Jansen’s 1871 photographic revolver, which was partly inspired by the Gatling gun, as well as an early prototype of the portable movie camera designed in the shell of a rifle by Étienne-Jules Marey. As attention turns to a present-day community meeting in Baltimore, the proposal for a spy plane to observe the city reflects the persisting question of who is protected by surveillance.

This community meeting is at the heart of what is perhaps the film’s most profound moment, bringing attention to the crew’s presence in the community as yet another surveillance operation, met with due scepticism. Documenting the community’s thoughts on the sky-high camera that had been proposed to capture them at every second of every day, the scene becomes a clear allegory for the space that exists between the documentarian and his subject. Through a careful defamiliarising of the camera, Anthony presents a reality in which surveillance is controlled by those in power – not objective truth, but a separate, privileged perspective.

Anthony is no stranger to portraying systemic social issues in non-fiction cinema with discernment and creativity. His first feature, Rat Film (2016), examined the social and housing inequality evident in Baltimore, sharply observed through an unexpected subject – rats. His short documentary Subject to Review (2019) investigated the bewildering world of replay technology in tennis, motivated by an interrogation of the repercussions of labelling the camera as superior to the human eye. Anthony’s work feels reminiscent of Harun Farocki’s – tactfully incorporating elements that would otherwise seem disparate, working towards a sense of political activism.

Amid this heaviness of critical and conceptual work, there are also frequent moments of lightness and playful absurdity to be found in All Light, Everywhere – the plastic smile of the Axon spokesperson and tour-guide, the off-kilter photographs captured by early 20th-century military pigeons and the frequent placement of bright, colourful shots of contemporary American average Joes turning their gaze to the sky as they become witness to an astronomical event. Dan Deacon’s hypnotic score lends a sense of grandeur, with long, bleeding notes in continuous motion, while Corey Hughes’s camerawork functions as a joyous observation of the physicality and social nature of the filmmaking process.

Together, All Light, Everywhere is a harmony of skilled thought and visual, historical documentation – an archaeological site at which the essence of camera-wielding is held, examined, and laid bare.

► All Light, Everywhere is in UK cinemas from 22 July 2022.