Theo Anthony is an American filmmaker, writer, and photographer best known for his feature-length Rat Film (2017). His most recent work is the mid-length film Subject to Review (2019), which studies the instant-replay technologies used in professional tennis to make final judgement on player-challenged line decisions.
Subject to Review, which is part of the ongoing 30 for 30 series (2009-), premieres on ESPN this Sunday, December 22, at 3PM EST. I spoke with the filmmaker by phone earlier this week; the following transcript has been condensed and edited.
DIG: There are obviously many lines one could draw linking Rat Film and Subject to Review, but for me the connection that stands out the most, at least on the surface, is the use of a traditionally authoritative voice actor to deliver the narration in both films. In Subject to Review, there are even scenes depicting you giving direction to that voice actor. Where does the impulse for this approach come from?
TA: A lot of Rat Film is about who determines the way the world looks, who designed it, and who’s really behind the scenes. And that was also a very interesting way to talk about the problematic structure in a lot of traditional documentary filmmaking. Which is, wizard behind the curtain telling you what is true and what is not true, in a way that’s unseen and unquestioned. And that’s something I try to question and deconstruct in my work.
With this new film, Subject to Review—which is so much about the hidden authority behind images, and who gets to stay hidden, and how they present reality in a certain way—I thought it was really important, as a filmmaker, to bring myself in as well. It would be hypocritical to make a film about invisible authority [if] I didn’t make myself visible as the authority making the film. So it was a way to bring myself into the picture, and into the critique, and not have any fantasies of the film representing a sort of objective voice.
Thinking about your use of narration, I also wanted to ask about your relationship to things like industrial movies, or “nature films”.
I think documentary film has a very long and problematic history, from the ethnographic films of the early 20th century through today. These films that have a presumed western audience, [and] that look at the world as something other, separate, and different from us, and that kind of mask themselves in these humanitarian tales of hope and struggle—that is a condescending way to proclaim your own authority or supremacy over what you’re seeing. Maybe that’s just a convoluted way of saying that documentary can mask its power dynamics, and that I think it’s really important to speak openly and honestly about those [dynamics], and about what it means to have a voice… if you don’t know who’s speaking, then you’re missing so much of the picture.
The other side of that is cinéma vérité, the fly on the wall myth pioneered in the 50s or 60s, with these filmmakers that would sneak in and [sometimes] remain undetected. Those are some of my favorite films, but I think they also spawned another really problematic tradition in filmmaking. Again, the person making the film is “invisible”, as if they aren’t exerting any force on the scene. Any filmmaker who’s been on a set, especially a documentary set, knows that cameras are these huge, vulgar, unwieldy objects; and that in almost every case, people know when they’re being filmed. And that when you’re filming someone, you’re having an active impact on both the scene and the person. It’s important to be honest, open, and accountable for all those forces. I like to show the infrastructure around what you’re seeing.
Before we get much further, I want to ask about the nature of the film’s production: Who approached who; who had the subject in mind; and where did the connection with Hawk-Eye come from?
ESPN approached me to make a 30 for 30. I grew up watching sports, and I was always a fan of the 30 for 30 franchise, so it was a dream project. I’d always had an idea in the back of my mind for a project about the history of instant replay, in general, with a look at how changes in technology affect our relationship with images, and how that reflects larger social, cultural, and political questions. I pitched that to them, and they were really interested, and gave us the go-ahead.
As we went ahead with the project, we realized it would be much better to zero in on one specific example. Like in Rat Film, I didn’t say here’s the history of Baltimore, but [rather], through pest control we’re going to explore the history of Baltimore. Similarly, the use of Hawk-Eye in tennis is so specific and interesting that going through that very narrow lens became a way to explore much larger topics.
I think 30 for 30, to their credit, is a very flexible format. And I think [films] that might be dismissed as “experimental” or “art house”… are actually really accessible [to the audience]. Because so many people watch sports, and so many people have questions about it. I felt lucky to be able to do something that is mine, you know? I’m proud of the film.
You’ve already spoken about depicting yourself within the film itself, specifically to reflect on larger ideas about nonfiction filmmaking. Related to that is your own relationship with the representatives of Hawk-Eye, and the other companies you collaborated with to make the film. Could you talk about those relationships, the larger implications of the access you received, and how that all fed into the final shape of Subject to Review?
I knew from the beginning that it’s not my style to do sit-down interviews with players and judges to ask them what they think. I wanted to do a procedural: How do these cameras work? How do they see the world? What kind of data do they collect? How do they assemble it? And how do humans interact with these instruments? To build a perspective on this topic from the ground up. [Because] it’s a really interesting interplay: Man and machine, working together.
The whole Hawk-Eye team was very courteous and patient with me. And I think they were surprised that I was so interested in them, because they’re literally sidelined. They’re not the point of the show. And for someone to not even be interested in tennis at all, but only interested in them? They were happy, at the time. I don’t know how they feel now.
I came in with, and still try to approach this with, a great deal of respect for their difficult task, and the way that they do it. I think applying critical analysis to something, to anything, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And I think it’s important to understand the way the world is put together. Unfortunately I also think maybe there are some market interests that would rather you just eat the sausage, and not worry about how it’s made. And I’m poking apart the sausage with a stick.
If I can reframe this… In Rat Film and even some of your shorts, like Chop My Money (2014), there’s very clearly a collaboration going on between you and the people who are on the screen. One gets the impression that they are not just being recorded, but are to some extent also helping to shape the form of the film itself. Is that dynamic in any way present in Subject to Review? Do you feel like the Hawk-Eye team became collaborators helping to shape the form of the film, or do you feel like this one is situated completely outside any other people?
A favorite tactic of mine is to have people doing something while I’m interviewing them. I don’t ask questions like, where were you born, how are you feeling, where did you go to school? But while they’re doing something, I’m asking, what are you doing right now? Or, what is that? If you look at a lot of my films, especially Rat Film, it’s just me hanging out with the person, and them showing me their world. They’re hosting me. And I think there’s a lot of respect that has to go both ways in those situations.
I think documentary can be, and is, a very exploitative practice. You’re prying, and probing, and trying to get beneath the surface. So I try to foreground the fact that there’s a camera in the room, and I try to have conversations about what the person would like to do with that camera. Oftentimes I’ve placed my subjects in positions where they’re very comfortable, like doing their job, or showing me their favorite objects around the house. That’s a way to work together on a representation, rather than just extracting what I want from them no matter what they say.
I would say that maybe the Hawk-Eye collaborators don’t feel that way. Again, I haven’t spoken with them in a while. But when we were there, I wanted to embed myself as much as possible, learn every single step of what they were doing and how it worked. We were [collectively] brainstorming how best to shoot things along the way, too; it was cool to involve them in that way. And they were so patient, and so nice to me, so I’m very grateful for that.
Something else very present in your prior films is a sense of regional specificity. There is footage of many professional tennis matches in Subject to Review, and obviously we know where those games take place, but otherwise I’m not sure I detected that quality anywhere in this new film. Do you?
We shot it in London at the 2018 ATP Finals. Most of the crew was from the UK… but it’s hard to say, because they do travel with the same setup. I would say that it’s less regional in terms of, like, a place on a map, a country or a city or a town or something, because we don’t really get into that history… But I do like to think of the O2 Arena in London, where we shot it, as the main character in the film. It’s such a complex organism; to see and understand all the infrastructure and labor that goes into what ends up being a very tiny slice of presenting [tennis]. We tried to be hyper-specific to the arena, if that makes sense. I wouldn’t say we added any specific cultural cues from London, but it was still very specific to a place.
Were the lingual choices in the movie your own, taken from Hawk-Eye’s literature, or influenced by another source altogether? I’m thinking specifically about words and phrases like “evidence”, “injustice”, and “truth of a prior event”. Or how you refer to lines on the court as “borders”. In a lot of cases the word choice within the narration leads back to “offscreen” subjects, like, say, the use of photographic evidence within the justice system of the United States, or the borders separating nations. How deliberately coded was the language of the film?
When I was writing this, I was drawing from a huge amount of literature, including Hawk-Eye manuals and technical guides. But also from a lot of great writers and academics, including Jimena Canales, Peter Galison, and Harry Collins and Robert Evans, who all come from a “history of science” perspective—contextualizing scientific practices within larger cultural and political narratives. I was very inspired by their works. And there’s another activist/writer/academic, Thomas Keenan, who teaches in the human rights department at Bard College, who has done a lot of amazing work around evidence and visibility. I’m hugely indebted to him.
In terms of actually writing the script, just like Rat Film isn’t really about rats, I think Subject to Review is not necessarily about tennis. I mean, it can be! You can watch it and learn about tennis. But I think that its real applicability is towards applying some of the questions and techniques that the film deploys towards larger questions in our everyday life; whether it’s the judicial system, or algorithmically predetermined life in the age of big data, or… I think there’s a lot of questions that need to be asked, and that need to keep on being asked.
I was imagining every single word as a double. Something that you could read, and it could apply to tennis, but also you could take that line and drop it into The History of the NSA or something. A lot of the work [for the film], especially towards the end, was about finalizing and polishing the language to make sure every single word and sentence has a double meaning. So it’s cool that you’re exploring that.
Well it’s cool that you made it. What preconceptions did you have going into the project?
It’s hard to answer, because I’m so far out from it. And I’m in this whole other feature film right now, so my head is in a totally different space, and it’s hard to rewind. I think the preconceptions… it’s so messy. I don’t know. Everything is so messy. Even if you go in with this good faith idea, I’m going to criticize Hawk-Eye, or, I’m not going to take them down, but I’m going to think critically about what they do… Then you meet these people, and they’re so nice! They’re so great. And the company is so supportive. It becomes hard to maintain that distance. And [hard] to allow those moments of human connection to shine through, while also talking about their system in a critical way. It’s a hard thing to balance. And I did come at it from a place of respect and integrity. I made sure that I double-, triple-, quadruple-checked every single line in the film to make sure we were being fair. And I hope that comes across.
I think you zoom in, and the more you zoom in, the more you zoom out. It’s this trippy thing that happens. Any scene in this could’ve been its own feature film. And that is a very exciting thing. But also frustrating! To feel that no matter how deep you go, you’re just scraping the surface.
Yes, and to that point, the references to Muybridge in Subject to Review had me thinking back on Thom Andersen’s great film Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1975), so in a sense at least one of your scenes does have a corresponding feature-length film already…
There’s a lot of loud/quiet/loud in Subject to Review, including right on the title card. Could you talk about the sound design of the film, and how you intend for it to function on a viewer?
Yeah, I like those abrupt transitions. There’s so much droney stuff that it does kind of lull you into this dream state. I wanted people to drop in, kind of lazy river style, just flow with the film—but then you can interrupt that for a dramatic effect.
And tennis is one of the most aesthetically pleasing sports there is. The way it looks, but also the sound, the textures—there’s just so much to work with. Almost similar to Rat Film, which had the popping sounds in the edit, [in Subject to Review] the balls, the squeaks, all that stuff, provided a very fertile ground to break up the lullaby moments with a sharp cut. The sound design was fun to play with. We had this amazing sound guy, Karl [Madert], who was right up in the player’s faces, getting the most amazing grunts and squeaks.
I also want to ask about the film’s visual variations. For instance there’s a line noting that Hawk-Eye’s cameras record at 1080p resolution. And there’s a lot of [cutting] between different visual formats in the film. Going from widescreen to 4:3 [aspect ratio], or from “high definition” to “standard definition”… Is that exciting, or inspiring, to you as a filmmaker?
You’re talking about cutting between the virtual and the physical spaces? Or cutting between 16:9 and 4:3?
Both, really—I’m curious how you feel about moving between all those different modes of visualization.
It’s exciting to find ways to move seamlessly between them. There’s a lot of match-cut shots between footage that we shot and 15-year-old archival footage. And the O2 Arena itself looks like a video game, like a simulation. When we were doing color correction, there were so many moments where my colorist was like, is this real or is this the reconstruction? And that was the coolest thing—to get them so close that you can’t tell if you’re seeing a simulation or not. When we were doing our shot lists, we intentionally scouted locations to shoot from that would seamlessly match cut between the physical and virtual world. Everything was designed with these bridges and transitions between formats in mind.
With the archival stuff, that was a challenge, going from 4:3 to 16:9… we could’ve cropped it out, or blown it up [to match the ratio for all the footage], but my priority is always to be faithful to the material. And not just the subject matter, but the actual physical material as well. If you’re cropping that out, then I don’t think you’re being totally honest to what it is. Also you’d be cropping out the score and half the players.
Without giving too much away, you conclude the film by considering the interplay between authority, the images used to illustrate or justify that authority, and the ways in which those images are then distributed. On some level, as an “ESPN Documentary”, this film has a certain level of authority itself. That’s obviously something you’re thinking about—how did you reckon with that, or work to deconstruct it?
I think it’s an exciting opportunity to take something like sports, which we’re all so used to looking at, and then offset that familiarity a little bit. Someone changing channels might think they’ve just stumbled onto a tennis match, but if they stick around for a little longer, they’re going to get a whole lot more.
The story I’ll tell is that we were front-row at the ATP Finals, best seat in the house, right behind the chair umpire, court side for the blockbuster Federer match. There are people behind us who have paid thousands of dollars for their seats. And we’re just a couple kids, with these big cameras, feeling like total imposters. Everyone’s watching the match… and our cameras are pointed in the totally wrong direction. We’re just zoomed in on some kid chewing his popcorn, [because] that’s the most interesting thing going on in the stadium right now, and they have no idea. And everyone is looking at us like we’re the biggest idiots in the world.
But something cool started happening: People started turning around to look at [whatever] we were looking at. Even Federer, at one point, looked at us, like, what the fuck are you guys doing? That you can disrupt the flow like that—that all it takes is to look in a different direction—is very exciting to me. And makes me think there’s a lot of possibility in slowing down, [especially] during this present moment that feels so fixed on disaster. If we can begin to notice new things, maybe new structures can be formed. That’s my optimistic bumper-sticker mantra right now.
Normally I’d never ask this question, but since you brought it up yourself: Is there anything you’d like to say about your next work?
Yeah, sure! I’ve been working on another feature for three-and-a-half years now, actually, and [Subject to Review] cropped up in the middle. It’s called All Light Everywhere, and I’m at the stage where I’m not good at explaining it concisely, because I’m still figuring out what it is. It’s all shot, and we’re hoping to have it edited and done sometime early next year, to hopefully be out to you by the middle or end of 2020.
It’s a film about different histories and technologies of vision, particularly looking at technologies of surveillance. And it does a similar thing [as Subject to Review] by looking at early photographic history. Not Muybridge, but other people like Étienne-Jules Marey, Alphonse Bertillon, a lot of [other] early photographic projects; and how a lot of the questions and issues they faced are still facing us today. I hold up this history [against] the present day, with police body cameras, and aerial surveillance—but also, even, how we teach filmmaking to kids. It’s a kaleidoscopic approach, as I’ve tried to do in both Rat Film and Subject to Review. It’s a big step for me, and it’s been simmering on the burner for a long time, so I’m excited to have it be out there. But honestly, it covers a lot of the same ground and questions as Subject to Review, which is how I was able to do both at the same time. A lot was [informed by] the same research, even, and by reading the same writers… Subject to Review could almost be its own section within the other film.