I once asked Adam Curtis how he chooses the starting points for his sprawling films. He mused that one could argue “the roots of anything go back a millennium.” I remember that whenever I watch the work of Theo Anthony, who selects seemingly specific topics — the rat problem in Baltimore, the use of instant replay in tennis — and then picks at them, opening up expansive new issues and ideas as he goes. Nothing is actually simple; scrutinize it enough and you’ll see how it connects to a myriad of other issues, and how those are connected to others, and so on and so forth. Anthony is like Dirk Gently, Douglas Adams’s gentleman detective who solves crimes by looking to the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.
In his new documentary All Light, Everywhere, which just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, Anthony starts with the body camera. Supposedly a tool for fostering more accountability and transparency in law enforcement, its implementation has instead led to results that have been mixed, at best. To probe why that may be, Anthony visits the Arizona headquarters of Axon, a company that manufactures body cameras and aggressively markets them to police departments. You are likely more familiar with Axon through its previous name: TASER International. They are a robust apparatus of the US police state, and that knowledge darkens the chipper tour that spokesman Steve leads through the facility. This tour is intercut with a vast collage of other scenarios — community meetings on policing in Baltimore, high school students working on amateur film projects, even a “neuromarketing” firm that puts together elaborate focus groups for commercials which involve minute monitoring of participants’ brains. Through this heteroglossia, Anthony draws out the multiple entangled elements of perception involved in the surveillance state and its relationship to both the public and law enforcement.
Most filmmakers would look at the body camera issue and run through factoids and figures. Anthony instead asks us to consider the act of seeing itself. He examines not just the history of the body camera but of the moving image, exploring how the very first motion picture, 1874’s Passage de Vénus, depicted the transit of Venus across the Sun — an astronomical event enthusiastically documented by scientists around the world. One could look at their coordinated effort and discern that film and surveillance have been inseparably linked from this shared origin. It’s all a matter of perspective.
On that note, while body cameras are widely sold to the public as a method of police accountability, Axon’s sale pitch to police is quite different. The company insists that the cameras will instead absolve them of accusations of brutality or misconduct. In one training session, officers are shown body camera footage which they are told was used to have charges against a cop dropped. The viewer does not see the footage; instead the film concentrates on the reactions of the officers, both as they watch it and discuss it afterward. They judge that the suspect in the video was obviously faking an officer assault. Would civilians agree? Does that even matter, since the police are the ones who have the power to issue citations, arrest, and even mete out life and death? The point is not the visual material itself — the “objective” facts — but rather how it is perceived. The mechanisms of law enforcement do not fairly and impartially administer punishments and protection to the masses. Justice does not wear a blindfold. Not only can she see, but she is also heavily prejudiced.
Variegated perspectives are not just offered within the documentary’s narrative, but even its very form. Narration is delivered through both traditional voiceover (delivered by a woman who makes clear that she is an actor serving as a medium for Anthony’s own thoughts) and subtitles (employed to act less like authorial pronouncements and more like footnotes). In drawing attention to such choices, All Light, Everywhere again emphasizes subjectivity, denying the documentary medium as an “objective” resource for the viewer. It references the observer effect — how merely watching a system will impact how it operates. We live in a world of omnipresent observation, and within such a system, what is and isn’t “true” matters less than how those with power elect to act on what they see.
All Light, Everywhere is currently playing virtually as part of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.