'All Light, Everywhere': Film Review | Sundance 2021

All Light, Everywhere
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
A brilliant and chilling study in watching the watchers.

In his second feature-length documentary, 'Rat Film' director Theo Anthony explores our blind spots when it comes to the role of surveillance in our lives.

Within just a few years, Theo Anthony has proven himself a master of the cine-essay. He doesn't neatly connect the dots for us, instead creating dynamic, synapse-sparking terrains, with particular focus on city life and social justice. Historical information and up-to-the-minute insights collide, intertwine and illuminate one another, inviting us to question power structures we might otherwise take for granted. Through a route of seeming detours, 2016's Rat Film examined the dehumanizing assumptions of 20th-century urban planning. The Baltimore-based filmmaker's new offering takes a similar but less diffuse approach, confronting the permeating presence in our lives of automated surveillance, and the false and dangerous premises it's built on.

Heady and densely packed with fascinating particulars, All Light, Everywhere — which was awarded a special jury prize in nonfiction experimentation at Sundance — is a gripping, mind-expanding wake-up call. Anthony delves into matters of language, physiology, astronomy, technology and criminology. At the heart of his inquiry is the link between photography and militarism. You shoot a film; you shoot a gun. That we use the same terminology to speak about cameras and weapons is no coincidence.

In addition to its rich historical material, All Light zeroes in on four contemporary fronts: a neuroscience focus group wearing hard-to-believe tracking devices; the country's leading manufacturer of body cameras; a classroom where Baltimore police are being trained to use those cameras; and a company that specializes in aerial surveillance.

Heightening the unsettling mood of doublespeak and foreboding is the judiciously used electronic score by Dan Deacon (Rat Film), buzzing and churning like the ghost in the machine. Keaver Brenai delivers a shivery-smooth voiceover narration with an undercurrent of outrage.

To interrogate the widely accepted notion that cameras provide impartial evidence, Anthony traces a number of 19th century developments in the use of photography, beginning with the 1874 transit of Venus across the sun and the technological innovations it inspired. There was intense competition to document the phenomenon, which takes place roughly every two and a half centuries. (In 2017 South Carolina, we see a far more relaxed crowd gather for a solar eclipse.)

An invention known as the photographic revolver was inspired in part by the rapid-firing Gatling gun, and the chronophotographic rifle was, in essence, the first portable movie camera. Then there would be systems for cataloging photographic images, like Alphonse Bertillon's method of identifying criminals and the composite portraits of eugenicist Francis Galton, which attempted to reduce individuals to types and predict criminal behavior. The documentary doesn't explicitly discuss facial recognition, but the implications resonate, urgently. And in the camera-equipped homing pigeons who were enlisted as aerial photographers during World War I, we find proto-drones.

In that aerial realm, a company called Persistent Surveillance Systems, headed by a soft-spoken man named Ross McNutt, figures large in Anthony's film. On the director's home turf of Baltimore, PSS teamed with the police department in a surveillance program so top-secret that even the mayor was unaware of it. At the time of those 2016 flyovers — with a photograph taken every second — Baltimore was a city still reacting to the 2015 murder of Freddie Gray while in police custody.

One of the doc's most charged and searing sequences finds McNutt, seeking clients after the covert program has been exposed and shuttered, pitching his high-in-the-sky surveillance capabilities for "troubled cities" to a community center in a Black neighborhood. In this context, the product that PSS "integrate[s] with local police" and generally characterizes as an "unbiased witness" becomes a citizen-friendly "unbiased witness to police activity." We observe a similar repositioning of intent for the body cameras of Axon International. They're touted to the public as tools for ensuring police accountability, but within the Baltimore PD class filmed by Anthony, the accent is on police exoneration.

Axon, formerly known as Taser International, is a major player in the "less-lethal weapons market," to drop an Orwellian turn of phrase. More than half the police departments in the United States use body cameras, and Axon claims the lion's share of body-camera sales. A guided tour of its Scottsdale, Arizona, headquarters and demonstrations of its products by corporate spokesperson Steve Tuttle flaunt the concepts of "transparency" and "candor" and also such cutting-edge widgets as "anti-felon identification confetti."

But they also reveal clear biases, even as the company, like PSS, emphasizes the neutrality of body-camera footage. It's a point of pride for Axon that its lenses mimic the human eye; infrared imagery, Tuttle points out, was a "big mistake" that some competitors made, because a court and jury shouldn't have information beyond the perspective of the officer wearing the camera. "There are some things you don't want to see," the director comments from behind his camera, the note of paradox understated but unmistakable.

Anthony makes his presence known throughout the film: We see him setting up sequences as well as filming — and, as a white cameraman in a meeting of Black Baltimoreans, he doesn't go unnoted by community center participants. It's a common misconception that nonfiction imagery and footage presents "the truth." By appearing onscreen, as well as through other means, the helmer-writer-editor makes the point that any photographic image or movie frame is by definition incomplete. This reality is so obvious that it's all too easily overlooked, especially when we tend to attribute omniscience to machines. Axon, using confidential IP, is teaching its AI programs "to see," and the images collected on its private servers are its product — yet another spin on the mining of personal information by social media companies.

That Anthony was given such access to Axon and the Baltimore PD is perhaps an indication of how certain these two organizations are that they're working in bias-free ways to deter crime. "Cameras don't take sides," the police instructor tells his class.Through Brenai, Anthony echoes the assertion, casting it in skepticism: "Our senses may lie to us. Machines cannot."

But of course they can, as a bit of trompe l'oeil f/x late in the film demonstrates. What is neutral, what is objective? And, more crucially, who defines it? All Light, Everywhere reminds us to pay attention to the limits of our field of vision and to peer into the blind spots. It asks whether automation — the 19th century sort and our state-of-the-art digital version — makes us wiser, more efficient, or just more deluded.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Narrator: Keaver Brenai
Production companies: Memory, Sandbox Films
Director-screenwriter-editor: Theo Anthony
Producers: Riel Roch-Decter, Sebastian Pardo, Jonna McKone
Executive producers: Greg Boustead, Jessica Harrop, David Dolby & Natasha Dolby, Tim Nash
Director of photography: Corey Hughes
Composer: Dan Deacon
Sound designer: Udit Duseja
Sales: CAA

109 minutes