Theo Anthony’s experimental documentary All Light, Everywhere confronts you with images you might not want to see: An inside look at someone’s sinewy optic nerve; police body-camera footage of people they’ve arrested, tasered, or shot; computer-generated faces, almost as human as possible, manipulated to adapt to the narrator’s voiceover or sing you to sleep as the credits roll. The film, which premiered at the virtual Sundance Film Festival before heading to the hybrid New Directors/New Films Festival, informs us at the beginning that if our brains did not conceal the blind spot in our vision where the eye and optic nerve meet, the place where we begin to process light, we could very well go mad. By the end of the film, which draws a timeline from 19th-century astronomical observation to modern-day police surveillance and criminological composite imagery, you very well may have.
The combination of soft-spoken narration, whirling music, and archival footage from the 1874 transit of Venus doesn’t always form an aesthetically cohesive whole, but All Light, Everywhere’s ambition pays off with its revelations of the state of modern surveillance and our willingness to believe in optical illusions. The tonal transition from arthouse doc to infomercial as we travel to the headquarters of Axon Enterprise is awkward at first, but the more we learn about the company’s research in artificial intelligence-powered policing and video evidence storage, the more clearly we see the line that Anthony draws from telescope to taser.
Previously known as TASER International for their namesake “less lethal weapon,” Axon is now a major producer of body-worn cameras, assembled by hand at their factory in Arizona. Axon’s cameras aren’t meant to be of the highest quality, but are instead intended to “mimic the human eye” with all its embedded faults. If the camera saw a clearer image than a police officer’s eye, the jury would be biased, according to the Axon spokesman who walks us through the offices. Axon has rebranded the panopticon quality of their headquarters as transparent and emphasizes “candor” in everything their employees do; it’s a similar philosophy to the disgraced co-working company WeWork, where the discomfort of colleagues who could always be seen through glass walls was a small sacrifice for openness and perceived equality. This misplaced notion of openness, in which bad behavior is enabled so long as we are transparent about it, is welcomed in Anthony’s next setting.
In Anthony’s home city of Baltimore, one of the most scandal-plagued police departments in the country conducts an Axon body-camera training session, where a white cop teaches mostly trainees of color how to properly record and save their surveillance footage. As the narrator informs us that a body-camera operator “both uses and is part of the camera,” the officer in charge implores the group to pay attention, catching them dozing off and whispering in each other’s ears. Later, they laugh at bodycam footage (which we can hear, but aren’t allowed to see) of a man being arrested who accuses an officer of injuring him, and express their hope that this documentary will shed light on the madness they face every day.
In another part of town, tensions rise at a community meeting where Ross McNutt, the president of Persistent Surveillance Systems, struggles to gain support for what Baltimoreans have come to call the spy plane. The system first operated over the city in secret (though McNutt insists this was never his intent), collecting data from a wide array of neighborhoods and transforming it into a two-dimensional representation of “unbiased witness.” But cameras are made by people, and people have biases—a point the film hammers home over and over as onlookers gaze up at the 2017 solar eclipse while the ASMR-like narrator links the development of the camera to that of military weaponry. Science and innovation have been tainted by capitalistic and imperialist competition from the start, and though learning this through the film’s jumps through time and space may not always feel like a lesson grounded in the medium Anthony has chosen, it’s a potent reminder all the same.
All Light, Everywhere is not always graceful in its assertions, and cannot always link one topic to the next with ease, but it serves as a powerful warning that the things that make this moment feel dystopian—constant surveillance, digitally-rendered human faces, drones that help police shoot tasers and guns while capturing it all on camera–were not born of this moment. We would never have deep fakes without criminal composite sketches, and we may never have birthed the eugenics movement without those sketches either. We could never fly a drone into enemy territory if we hadn’t trained carrier pigeons to fly over the trenches wearing small cameras. We would never know that the act of observation conceals the observation itself if we could see the blind spot where the light comes in.
This review is from the New Directors/New Films Festival. The film won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Nonfiction Experimentation at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. All Light, Everywhere will be released in theaters on June 4 by Super LTD, a division of NEON.