A history of filmmaking, surveillance, and subjective and objective framings of both, “All Light, Everywhere” is a self-contained nonfiction feature that plays like a season of brainy nonfiction TV compacted into about two hours’ running time. Conceived and directed by Baltimore-based filmmaker Theo Anthony, whose other location-specific, idea-driven projects include the excellent “Rat Film,” it tries to touch on every significant cultural, technological and philosophical aspect of surveillance, including how easy it is for tech that is supposedly objective, detached, logical, etc, to be manipulated, abused, and withheld, and the way that people’s own biases and cultural conditioning affect how they interpret the data they’re looking at, whether it’s satellite images of inner-city neighborhoods or body camera footage of a police confrontation with a private citizen that ends in violence and ends up going before a review board or a jury.
And this is all but one small corner of a warehouse of information, so vast and cluttered that “All Light, Everywhere” often seems to have trouble picking a single line of inquiry or argument and sustaining it before having another, related thought, then following that one for a while before jumping to something else entirely. Anthony’s cross-cut structure hops among parallel storylines and historical anecdotes, each putting a different frame around the film’s all-encompassing set of thematic interests.
The name of police murder victim Freddie Gray is invoked early, and his fate lingers in the backs of our minds as the movie unfolds. Anthony and his collaborators contrast the the gee-whiz excitement of executives, salesmen, and spokesmen (they’re all white and male) in the surveillance industry against the skepticism of progressive watchdogs; philosophers and ethicists both past and present; and Black Baltimore residents who are not content to be mere “subjects” in whatever experiment these modern industries are hell-bent on undertaking for profit.
The monotonous narration—by a woman who tells us that her voice represents the blind spot at the back of the eye where the image is interpreted by the brain—is the biggest conceptual swing in a project filled with them. It ultimately proves counterproductive, though, not just because the voice-over has a sleep-aid effect, but because there’s nothing after that point that makes us feel as if we’re hearing something other than, well, just plain old third-person “expert” narration, much like you’d hear on a random BBC or PBS documentary made decades earlier. But it does provide much-needed context that (ironically or not) pictures and sounds alone cannot always provide. And at its best, it provides a regular stream of provocative, at times cheeky aphorisms, like what you might hear (or see written onscreen) in a Jean-Luc Godard essay movie, or a movie inspired by Godard (One declares that “the act of observation obscures the observation”).
The movie is more effective when it’s staying in-the-moment with a specific line of thought, whether focusing on present-day issues or historical facts that put modern problems in perspective. There’s good stuff here about the relationship between motion picture cameras and the development of automatic weapons (which were developed around the same time, with early Zoetrope-type devices modeling themselves on the Gatling gun) and the interchangeability of photography and military language (camerapeople and soldiers getting targets in their sights and shooting them, etc).
Along the way, there are regular sidebars about the creation of motion picture technology, which arose from astronomy; the intersection of prison panopticon strategies and Europe’s subjugation of nonwhite colonies in Africa and Asia; the relationship between Darwinism, eugenics, and modern white supremacy as practiced by democracies; and much larger, vaguer questions about subjectivity and objectivity in relation to the struggle to decide what is real and true and what is manufactured and false.
The idea that images and image-recording technology can become an extension of state subjugation, police violence, and white supremacist ideals is the most urgent and powerful line of inquiry in the film, never more so than a group of Black Baltimoreans are having a community meeting with the representative of a company that wants to put additional cameras in their neighborhood, allegedly to deter crime. This riveting scene (broken into pieces, alas, and used for more crosscutting effects, to its detriment) also implicates the film itself, which was made predominantly by white artists; the Black folks in the room call them out for not having any people of color on the crew (one of them says that he personally knows several filmmakers of color who could’ve participated) and ding one of the sponsors of the meeting, a Black clergyman, for not being crystal-clear with them about how footage from this meeting would be used in the documentary (the face of most eloquent, justifiably angry person in the room, a Haitian immigrant, is blurred, presumably because Anthony wanted him in the movie but didn’t want to get sued—a choice so rich and troubling that it deserves a short follow-up documentary).
The movie keeps returning to the intersection of race and police work—particularly when focusing on Scottsdale, Arizona-based Axon Technology, formerly Taser, which manufactures stun guns, body cameras, and other technology used by civilian police, military, mercenaries, and private security forces. A spokesperson for Axon keeps inadvertently serving up useful metaphors and ironies on a silver platter, and the movie is more than happy to run with them, as when he gives the film crew a tour of a plant where body cameras and weapons are manufactured, proudly declares that the plant’s open floor plan is a testament to its belief in “transparency” and “candor,” then directs his visitors’ attention to a “black box” area on the second floor where researchers can black out their picture window view of the floor with the touch of a button, to prevent anyone from seeing what they’re up to.
Obviously there’s no single correct answer to be found in any of these detours, a couple of which nearly become narrative cul-de-sacs until the movie recovers and jumps back into the present day. It’s to the credit of Anthony, who wrote and edited as well as directed, and his cinematographer Corey Hughes, that you come away thinking even about parts of the film that might’ve felt like cut-able digressions and undergraduate musings when you were watching them. As a freestanding work, it’s got more problems than can even be described here, but as a gift-bag full of prompts for discussion, it’s hard to beat.
Dean Deacon’s outstanding ambient synth score provides another layer of irony. Evoking naive, retro, high-tech wonder, in the manner of Vangelis’ score for the original “Blade Runner,” it creates a sinister undertow without resorting to obvious tactics. It’s as if the men in ties who are constantly trying to sell the filmmakers and us on the unproblematic marvels of their wares were constantly trying to drown out any worries we might have. There are times when contributes to the all-over-the-place too-muchness of the movie, and not in a helpful way; when Anthony is taking a minute to show us objects rolling through assembly lines or people in an observation room taking place in a study of human eye movements, and Deacon is going to town on the synthesizers, it’s as if we’ve traveled back in time to experience the opening of EPCOT Center at Disney World circa 1979, in the company of philosophy students who got baked on the monorail platform on the way in.
Still, there’s something to be said for an aesthetic that owns the dynamics of a wandering mind in the way that this movie does. And if one takeaway resonates more strongly than the rest, it’s that the definition of objective truth depends on where you’re standing, what you’re looking at, and what you decided to see in the first place. Which, of course, means that somebody else could watch this film and come away feeling as if they’ve seen a classic that manages to put a multi-faceted subject in its viewfinder and somehow manage to examine it from every possible angle.