The Immeasurable Unseen: All Light, Everywhere
Theo Anthony's sophomore feature documentary film shines a light on the symbiotic relationship between camera technologies and social control.
Early into Theo Anthony’s All Light, Everywhere (2021), a monotoned narrator (voiceover actor Keaver Brenai) mentions that every film, in part, is an autobiography; that every image lives within a frame and every frame excludes whatever lies beyond its edges. Take this with the William Blake quote opening the first of the film’s four sections—“As the Eye—such the Object.”—and it may be safe to assume Anthony’s second feature will further expand upon the ideas set forth in his previous work, particularly Subject to Review (2019), the brilliant medium-length film that connected the rise of instant replay software to cinema history, sports entertainment, and our long-drawn failures to objectively interpret the world. With All Light, Everywhere, Anthony turns to the frailties of a slightly different technology, that of body cameras and aerial surveillance. The writer-director-editor is joined once again by his like-minded regular collaborators: composer Dan Deacon, whose dreamy, granular synth score admixes cello, saxophone, and guitar to sustain some of the film’s most resonant images and revelations; and Corey Hughes, Anthony’s cinematographer (and a sharp filmmaker in his own right), who cycles between nimble tracking shots, body and dash cams, drones, and searching cine lens zooms that resemble pictorial surveillance footage.
On one level, the film is a first-rate documentary of the ancient, symbiotic relationship between technology and power. It joins historical turning points in mechanical automation with the 2017 solar eclipse, drone-equipped pigeons, private technology firms, and a media production classroom in the filmmaker’s native Baltimore, among other subjects. Our profoundly disturbing relationship to technology and totalitarian conformism emerges as much by the film’s nonlinear structure as by its tone, by turns investigative and aphoristic, but Anthony’s methodology is never less than legible. Time and again, All Light, Everywhere nails down the duplicitous values promulgated in the names of scientific vision—or justice, truth—and asks how our worldviews have been filtered through elaborate technologies, ideologies, and cultural metaphors whose meanings, whether mathematical or cinematic, rest on the decoder’s own value system.
It starts in the present with Axon Enterprise, Inc. (formerly Taser), an Arizona-based advanced weapons-technology company controlling electroshock firearms and body camera patents, as well as the Evidence.com copyright. But Anthony wastes little time turning to history and alighting on the convergence points between the gun and the camera. The first example he identifies dates to 1874, when French astronomer Jules Janssen used his revolver photographique—the first practical device for sequential photography, modeled in part after the spinning cylinder of a gatling gun—to record the transit of Venus over Japan. Roughly eight years later came Étienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotographic gun, which refined Janssen’s hefty machine into a point-and-shoot rifle to study animal and human locomotion. (Not unlike Eadweard Muybridge’s experiments, except using one instrument instead of 12.) What is as significant, if unsurprising, is how inevitably and consistently these technological strides advanced alongside those of the ballistics industry. Janssen’s long-range targeting and Marey’s portable rifle hardly settle in our minds before Anthony returns us to the present day of Axon’s bustling warehouse of high-tech cameras and other less-lethal gear. They’re also far from forgotten when the CEO of Persistent Surveillance Systems, Ross McNutt, pitches his “Eye in the Sky” spy plane technology to a Baltimore community group from high-crime neighborhoods, whereupon footage would be archived but withheld from the surveilled (“for privacy reasons”). This history of photography follows arm-in-arm with the evolution of social control: evidence by any means necessary. “The flash fires, the camera shoots,” the narrator says. Under the guise of nonviolent policing and public interest, the camera has become the weapon, and hyper-storable images the latest model of ammunition.
Anthony isn’t content to sketch this symbiosis, but rather he seeks to disentangle its latter-day manifestations, contradictions and all. Early in the film, an alternately downy and jittery Movi-shot sequence follows Axon spokesperson Steve Tuttle as he moves through the company’s Scottsdale HQ. After taking some mark-hitting cues from Anthony (who shrewdly inserts various prep and crew footage throughout the film), Tuttle proceeds past an iris-scanning door lock and onto an LED-lit catwalk (which he likens to Star Trek) overlooking a suite of cubicles. “There are no secrets here,” he says with one arm outstretched, and launches into a speech about the importance of candor and transparency in the workplace. Seconds later he points to the top floor’s black box, a research and development office-cum-panopticon with one-way tinted windows: “We want them to stay kind of hidden, while at the same time looking at us.” Anthony forecasts this sight gag with a striking sense of timing and self-awareness, but he doesn’t stop there, and neither does Tuttle. Later, when standing beside an assembly line of the latest taser and wearable camera models, Tuttle admits, “the cameras are changing behaviors just like the weapons, when they’re aimed.” Anthony cannily exposes our ideological mythologies, not all of them always visible or audible, together with his own medium’s limitations without total cynicism nor depriving us of these moments of honestly illuminating, if troubling, candor.
Take for example the Baltimore community meeting with the Ross McNutt. After his pitch presentation, a rather heated debate among residents unfolds over the premise of his all-seeing “Eye in the Sky”—a small plane fitted with a 44-megapixel camera that can rewind and fastforward quick as a wink. The suspicion is warranted: in 2015, this same plane secretly recorded Baltimore city’s unrest in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, without even the mayor’s knowledge. “The ‘Eye’ is made to see crime in historically high crime areas,” the narrator states, “and so it will see crime in historically high crime areas.” This is not a device designed to look into skyscrapers or through suburban tree lines, but rather to flatten and pull apart urban sprawl, where bodies and vehicles are reduced to mere pixels on Evidence.com—a cloud-based digital evidence system accessible to police, military departments, and, undoubtedly, the black boxes of the world.
That this footage remains under the digital lock and key of Axon’s proprietary software is another issue entirely, but not one without precedent. In 1879, English polymath Frances Galton devised the technique of composite photography—a process by which multiple photographic portraits of faces are superimposed over each other to highlight common features. Considered the pioneer of eugenics, a term he coined himself, Galton hoped to stockpile enough portraits to aid medical research and criminology by creating speculative human subjects of multitudinous “types”: Jewish men, criminals, patients with tuberculosis—a synthesis of real people amounting to nobody at all; records of what fails to truly exist before the eyes. Physiognomic arguments aside, it’s no less chilling to see how an archive constitutes its own authority by the flimsiest of pretexts and commodifies its contents, along with whatever specious systems gives it shape.
The film’s epilogue offers a sharp contrast. Anthony and his crew observe a classroom in Baltimore’s Frederick Douglass High School. Initially conceived as the film’s core, a caption explains, this sequence lasts all but a few minutes. What’s shown are students collaborating on a television pilot: storyboarding, setting up shots, snapping photos—utterly captivated by the creative possibilities of the equipment before them. Given what dystopian visions of image-making precede it, Anthony’s decision to abridge the footage so significantly may come as no surprise. His point here is nevertheless defined; in fact, it lends a striking degree of integrity felt throughout the entire film, and slightly revises his subversive critique of human imperfections into a defense of our potential. Indeed, what makes All Light, Everywhere such an absorbing work of surprising connections and revelations is the filmmaker’s empathic curiosity and clarity of thought, from which the open questions matter more than those that are answered. Before arriving at this final segment, Anthony quotes Douglass himself: “We all feel that there is something more. That the curtain has not yet been lifted. There is a prophet within us, forever whispering that behind the seen lies the immeasurable unseen.”