Sound controls

Theo Anthony on All Light, Everywhere

Sign up for the weekly newsletter on Sight & Sound movies and more

News, reviews and archive articles every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.

“What story does the future dream of? wonders the narrator of All Light, Everywhere by Theo Anthony, a documentary that questions the reflex of surveillance behind our gaze and recording technologies.

The question is somewhat pre-answered: at the time it is posed, Anthony’s film has collected ample evidence of the overlaps between observation and control as they occurred in the development of early camera technologies . He quotes the astronomer Jules Janssen and his photographic revolver of the early 1870s, modeled on the Gatling gun; Etienne-Jules Marey and his 1882 chronophotographic rifle, trained quite early on colonial subjects in French Senegal; Alphonse Bertillon and his anthropometric classification of police detainees; and Francis Galton and his “pictorial statistics”—composite photo typographies that led Galton to his theory of eugenics.

An Axon body camera, as seen in All Light, Everywhere (2021)

Meanwhile, in the dreamy present, Anthony follows the happiness of two peddlers of cutting-edge surveillance technology. In Scottsdale, Arizona, taking corporate transparency claims at face value, he receives a PR-guided tour of the headquarters of Axon Enterprise, Inc, formerly known as Taser, maker of electroshock weapons and now the undisputed leader in the deployment of police body cameras. He tests the technology (and its limits) in a shopping mall, captures the internal police justification for body cameras during a training session and – with the Axon PR now in overdrive – features an Axon-branded multi-camera arrest scenario in the desert.

Back home in Baltimore, Anthony is also witnessing Persistent Surveillance Systems President Ross McNutt’s efforts to sell citizens his plane-mounted live spy cameras “in God’s sight” — a bit belatedly, because the technology had previously been rolled out in 2016 without disclosure even to the mayor. Now he puts on a sympathetic face at community liaison meetings, offering flattery on providing an ‘impartial witness’ in ‘troubled towns’. As Anthony’s voiceover says on an Axon promotional video, “It’s like watching a company dream aloud”: the claim is objectivity, the dream is omniscience, the end of the game is power. One thinks of Jeremy Bentham’s ubiquitous panopticon, but also of Naomi Klein’s ideas in No Logo about corporate aspirations for weightless, burdenless power.

Anthony speaks of a “starting momentum” more than a starting point, but the film was partly born out of the reaction to Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody in Baltimore in 2015, and ” to see these body camera technologies taking hold, as a rare point of agreement between police and activists – the idea that because we see it and understand it, we will be able to hold the police to account.

All Light, Everywhere (2021)

Anthony, who previously mapped Baltimore’s fraught history of social division and political bidding in his eclectic essay Rat Film (2016), throws cold water on tech makers’ claims to serve truth without bias, but here he also scratches his own cinema. look: “Every film is partly an autobiography of its director”, declares the narrator, and we see him putting plans in place, we see his editing chronology; most electrifyingly, we see his subjects challenge his gaze, especially during an all-black community liaison meeting debating the PSS pitch, in which a beautifully savvy Haitian immigrant challenges the agenda of (white) filmmakers.

The film’s string of doubts continues in our phone interview: “I look back and recoil at the way we approached the film at the start,” Anthony says. “Making a film about looking and gazing, this incredibly vague question – who am I to think I have anything new to say about it? But I think we’ve always focused on our process of discovery : we weren’t making a definitive story of anything, we were making a documentary that contains the traces of our collisions with ourselves and this story.

No doubt for Steve Tuttle, the Axon PR representative, who puts on an exuberant show for Anthony’s camera, whether it’s spouting two conflicting claims about transparency without missing a beat, praising the sounds of economic progress from the sound production chain company or become a field agent for the staged arrest demonstration. He is absurd but ingenuous – a very human figure of amusement.

All Light, Everywhere (2021)

“I don’t think this style of journalism or documentary filmmaking with its straw man arguments really benefits anyone, regardless of political motive,” Anthony says. “We’re always looking for those Voldemorts or Darth Vaders behind the curtain, and it blinds you to how the power really works, which is with the complicity of a lot of well-meaning people, on the surface enough kind without a lot of push for change in a deeply problematic system. I’m trying to lean into that complexity. You know, Steve would give us restaurant recommendations and then shift gears and talk about how these body cameras are tools for people. It’s just absolute bullshit. And I think he believes everything he says.

Speaking of uber-villains, I tell Anthony that the lessons of the film are that greater visual literacy and a more humble understanding of perspective would discourage our public representatives from yearning for the all-seeing gaze of Sauron from Lord of the Dead. Rings. Turns out Anthony himself is now running for local office — as a councilman in Hudson, upstate New York, where he campaigned on police reform and tried to rewrite body camera and use of force policies for the city.

So he tells me a story about the upbringing of the county public safety committee—so far, in Anthony’s story, a visually illiterate talk shop and front for a conservative sheriff—with a screening of his film and an interview in a local newspaper. “The very next meeting, all of the committee members showed up knowing how these body cameras work, quoting the literature we had sent them, and the whole tenor of the room changed – she crossed any left division /right and it was like, ‘Oh, you’re actually informed now.’ And it was like a metonym for a larger project, wasn’t it? Who controls the flow of information? Who controls the setting? As soon as you introduce a bit of visual literacy or critique, you can talk of what was at stake. It’s hyper-local and I’m not saying I changed everything, but it was cool to play a part in moving that conversation in real time. It’s rare to have that experience when making art.