Film Review: All Light, Everywhere
Written, directed, and edited by Theo Anthony. US, 2021, 109 minutes.
Key to Theo Anthony’s prior movies Rat Film (2016) and Subject to Review (2019) is a sort of formal trickery—at first they pretend like they’re investigating something particular and tangible. In Rat Film that means a very authoritative narrator talking about the proliferation of the “adult Norway rat” in Baltimore, sounding almost like a nature channel host. And in Subject to Review that means a similarly professional voiceover describing a brand-name instant replay technology at length, which makes sense because Subject to Review is an ESPN 30 for 30 movie and therefore ostensibly among the most particular and tangible nonfiction you can find. But then both films spiral outwards to to consider much broader and eventually more abstract subjects… and to facilitate crucial digressions into specific philosophical concepts, political theories, and historical records… and most of all just to escape the rigid boundaries of traditional documentary filmmaking in, let’s say, the nature channel or 30 for 30 mode… So on an experiential level the films are defined at least in part by what they’re not… rogue images broken away from the mostly artless and more commercialized forms they playfully dialogue with.
You could frame Anthony’s latest film, All Light, Everywhere, under similar terms: the movie starts by looking into the director’s own eye, charting its lines and colors while a narrator explains what those lines and colors represent—maybe burlesquing a medical study this time? But rather than continue such pretenses, the new film immediately spirals outwards into a more openly discursive and even free-associative study of imaging technologies and police-state policy. Which are very much the primary subjects of Rat Film and Subject to Review, too—imaging technologies and state policy, that is. So what’s been removed is the trickery. Structured in three chapters plus an epilogue, All Light, Everywhere freely roves inwards and outwards, backwards and forwards, round the edges of its subject, and even between editing timelines, crossing from abstract to tangible and back again the whole time. And in doing so it moves not like a traditional film gone rogue or remixed, sorta like Rat Film did and especially like Subject to Review did, but instead entirely to its own rhythm—which proves challengingly syncopated, right from the start.
To wit I can name a few distinctions about the chapters, but I’m not sure I can properly articulate how they operate separately as movements. What I am sure of is that six or so “main threads” (narrator’s own phrase) are spread across the different sections. And that they depict:
• Axon Technology head Steve Tuttle demo’ing his company’s body cameras and other accompanying devices, including the interface for evidence.com.
• A group of Baltimore police officers attending a class instructing proper use for their own Axon body cameras.
• Persistent Surveillance Systems head Ross McNutt presenting video collected by the surveillance plane his company occasionally flies over Baltimore.
• McNutt in a community meeting arguing for the efficacy and ethical qualities of the PSS plane, and fielding responses afterwards.
• A group of adults with headsets in a study that considers their eye movement and vision.
• And finally a group of people filming a recent solar eclipse.
Cut between these main threads is narration (two different tracks, voiceover and subtitles), some one-off scenes (a major one depicts Anthony’s crew testing a body camera in a mall, the wide angle rendering the place even more of a neofascist consumerist hellscape than usual), and various clip based recountings of relevant historical records, as in the prior films (here they’re usually detailing 19th century “motion photography,” and its connections to state policy). While these fraught riffs on the subject of vision play out, the subject and theme of the film somewhat ironically become very clear: that images and perception and perhaps even sight itself are perpetually tinged, and that in turn no objective truth can ever really be discerned from what might be called visual evidence… especially when those in power dictate what constitutes such evidence in the first place, and control the machines that create it. And maybe sometimes that power creating evidence is a state-funded employee uploading videos on a computer to show during a criminal trial—which the film shows to throw some needed skepticism onto the practice… and maybe sometimes that power creating evidence is a critically acclaimed white man editing footage to his own tastes while depicting a city that’s more than 60% black in a film that’ll be exhibited at an fairly renowned festival—which the film similarly acknowledges, throwing some complications and problems and skepticism onto itself (and maybe onto my review, too).
That such ideas and reflections and self-critiques are well trodden in literature and philosophy and theory is a fact openly acknowledged by Anthony’s film, which concludes with a bibliography. But when you get past the historical and philosophical and theoretical concepts cited and presented throughout… and when you get past the multiple layers of narration that Anthony uses to acknowledge his own presence and privilege and subjective perspective… and when you get past the visual effects creating some connective tissue between the six threads, which often bring in a hint of the cosmic… and when you get past the film’s tricky and rather brilliant use of layered cutting, which at one point works all the way down to Anthony’s own editing software… when you get past all that, you get to what I think is the real center of the movie, which is the presentation of its own evidence regarding specific political concerns in the city of Baltimore.
Baltimore the city where Freddie Grey was killed by police in 2015, leading directly to increased calls for the nationwide use of body cameras: a crime and public response that looms over all the work that Anthony, who’s from Annapolis, has made since. That of course includes All Light, Everywhere, which is very keyed into developing police and surveillance politics—so much so that at least two of the film’s local “threads” have gotten tugged on in recent times. For one thing Baltimore’s contract with Axon was “amended” last June by both the outgoing and incoming mayor to increase the program’s costs from about $11 million to over $35 million (“In return for the latest slug of money… Axon will replace the police department’s legacy Record Management System with its own Evidence.com System to store and manage body camera video and audio footage,” reported the Baltimore Brew. “The new software is needed, according to the agenda, so that police can meet a 2021 deadline to make their Incident-Based Reporting System compatible with the FBI’s system and to comply with the Justice Department consent decree.”)
And for another thing, the city’s spending board cancelled the PSS surveillance plane’s financing just last week—four days after Anthony’s new film premiered online.
That’s not meant to imply direct causation, but just to show how exactly this movie captures a certain politicized zeitgeist. Most of all All Light works to reveal the sales pitches behind, to hear the community responses to, and to describe the actual use of those devices. And so the film’s real center, beyond all the connective tissue, is a relatively straightforward nonfiction portrait of the American surveillance state and its attendant discourse… the film presenting a place where phones and screens and cameras are completely omnipresent (the edit of the cop lecture scene even dual-screens to show attendees splitting attention between the lecture and their iPhones), and thus so is surveillance (another scene depicts a mass of Axon cameras recording each other like a lens-based standoff—recalling a short film by All Light cinematographer Corey Hughes, who’s yet another eye constructing the film’s own tinged perspective)… and presenting a place where warmongering rich white people, sensing the presumed consent and nearly boundless opportunity, make lucrative sales in the name of the public interest (usually speaking with the same kinda voice used on the Home Shopping Network—Anthony’s edit even includes Tuttle getting into character before each shot)… and presenting a place where, finally, as a result, the very concept of privacy has been obliterated to absurd degrees (one man in the community meeting refuses to sign a release, so Anthony blurs his image… but we can still hear his voice, and still see his body, and he’s still being recorded by other phones in the room too, so it’s probably fair to say that at least some Baltimore-based viewers will be able to identify him regardless—meaning the movie stealthily and punkishly violates his consent via a purposeful loophole that seems to say, look man, it’d be happening anyway).
Finally an epilogue depicts young black students producing movies themselves, in a scene the narrator labels a prayer. That further underlines the hierarchy already established: for All Light, Everywhere depicts a constant succession of white men controlling the moving image—dictating their parameters, selling their value, lecturing on their proper usage, and in Anthony’s case directing their production and editing their results… this all while the city’s black majority are left as receivers—receivers of the policies being implemented, receivers of the bullshit sales pitches being passed along, and receivers of the movies being made about them (a prayer, then, because the hope for a more equal moving image for now remains only that).
This racist hierarchy goes unchallenged across the whole film except during the scene depicting the community meeting about the PSS spy plane, which Anthony recently described in Filmmaker Magazine as “the only moment in the film, really, where people are actually speaking back.” That caught my eye because, coincidentally, it lines up with how I characterized a scene in Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall (2020) depicting a community meeting about a weed shop, which I described as “[the scene] where the people of Massachusetts, after receiving messages for basically the whole film, finally get to talk back.”
Both sequences depict mostly black audiences receiving messages from people that aren’t black, but that want to do business in their community. Both sequences are filmed and edited by white filmmakers working alongside small white crews. And both sequences depict takeaways that may surprise white audiences seeing movies like All Light, Everywhere and City Hall on virtual festival platforms with ostensibly liberal principles—as both depict a significant portion of local citizens arguing in favor of increased policing and surveillance to offset violent crime, even suggesting they’d welcome pot shops and spy planes against their prior beliefs so long as it’d help cops along the way. So whether interpreting the state of the moving image, evoking the cosmic, delving into archives, or simply documenting the stuff of local reportage, Anthony’s film works diligently to present a vision of this country and this city that acknowledges not only inequities, not only subjectivities, but also just plain disagreements… giving real space to let people speak contradictorily about the matters affecting their lives, rather than smoothing discordant beliefs out into agreeable points or meanings. And with that All Light, Everywhere becomes complicated and nuanced to a degree that actually befits the political debates and social dynamics that it depicts—a profound accomplishment for any American film. At least to my perspective. [★★★★]