- Reviewed from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
“From what history does the future dream?” Theo Anthony’s revelatory and meditative feature documentary All Light, Everywhere navigates the contextual histories of surveillance technologies – from instruments which 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 meta-textual analysis of the blind spot which exists deep within its centre. It’s an apt metaphor which underscores the film’s thematic occupation; namely, 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 ‘reflexive’ documentary mode, used by the likes of Chris Marker and Errol Morris to convey and demonstrate their skepticism of objective truth.
In All Light, Everywhere, the focus is not just a matter of the ability of cinema to adequately represent reality, but to confront the wider politics of who controls images that are captured, who those images protect, and who 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 following the murder of Freddie Gray in 2015, the film charts what Anthony illustrates as a fundamental link of camera to weapon. It’s just a few minutes into the film when the tour of the Axon Enterprises office and assembly line begins, where it becomes evident that, alongside the Axon Body Camera, they also produce military grade weapons and their 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 of a spy plane surveilling the city reflects the persisting discourse of who surveillance protects.
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 skepticism. Documenting the community’s thoughts on the sky-high camera which had been proposed to capture them at every second of every day, the scene becomes a clear allegory for the space which 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 nonfiction cinema with discernment and creativity. His debut feature Rat Film (2016) storied the social and housing inequity evident in Baltimore, linked by a surprising bread crumb trail, lead – of course – by 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 – tactfully incorporating elements which would otherwise seem disparate, working towards a sense of political activism.
Through this heaviness of critical and conceptual work, there too exists frequent moments of lightness and absurdity in All Light, Everywhere – the plastic smile of the Axon tour-guide, the off-kilter photographs captured by early 20th century military-enlisted pigeons and the frequent placement of bright, colourful shots of contemporary American Average Joes turning their gaze to the sky. Dan Deacon’s score is profound and hypnotic, and Corey Hughes camerawork feels embodied and observant.
Together, All Light, Everywhere is a harmony of skilled thought and visual documentation, marking an archaeological site at which the essence of cinema is held, examined, and laid bare.
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