When we cannot believe our eyes
Dir/scr: Theo Anthony. US. 2021. 109mins.
Watching is not a passive activity in All Light, Everywhere, the exceptional second feature from nonfiction filmmaker Theo Anthony. Scrutinising the very process of seeing — how we observe and interpret the world around us — this engrossing and troubling essay questions the idea that what we take in through our eyes is, any practical sense, the truth of our surroundings, and the director has compiled a dizzying amount of evidence to back up this argument. All Light illuminates the blind spots in everything — whether it’s law enforcement, the military or even documentaries — to expose the biases and secret agendas informing our hopelessly limited perspective.
Systematically, All Light peels away the artifice behind what we see
As with Anthony’s previous documentary Rat Film, All Light is an intellectually stimulating experience that could be too esoteric for wider audiences, but the film’s wealth of ideas — and their relevance to timely concerns about government surveillance and police misconduct — should make this enormously appealing to adventurous viewers.
Anthony, who also wrote and edited the picture, tackles this issue of how we observe through different viewpoints. He spends time in the offices of Axon, where company spokesman Steve Tuttle proudly shows off cutting-edge police body cameras, as well as follows along with Ross McNutt, the head of Persistent Surveillance Systems, who wants to sell the city of Baltimore on using his aerial surveillance system to monitor crime. In between, we hear from narrator Keaver Brenai, who traces the early history of astronomy and photography, as archival photos and documents demonstrate how the process of recording the world has inherently led to skewed findings and unintended consequences.
Although Anthony brings a sober intelligence to this subject matter — a cerebral mood which is only enhanced by Dan Deacon’s electronic score — All Light is so animated by the connections it draws between different spheres that the effect is exuberant. There’s a palpable sense of discovery at the filmmaker’s findings, which continually prompt us to be more critical of the information we take in. (That includes the film we’re watching: Anthony impishly reminds us occasionally that he, too, is manipulating images simply by the way he weaves together his footage.)
Systematically, All Light peels away the artifice behind what we see, going in-depth to illustrate how body cams aren’t wholly accurate representations of what police officers observe — for one thing, the wide-angle lenses distort reality. It also examines how the very first mug shots became the grist for initial studies into trying to predict what kinds of faces were predisposed toward crime, eventually leading to the discriminatory practice of eugenics.
The chipper Tuttle serves as one of the documentary’s anchoring presences, enthusiastically talking up the importance of transparency both within Axon and in their products, but his upbeat demeanour ends up becoming an ironic commentary on the wide chasm between the observer and who is being observed. Often, it is the observer who has all the power, which proves dangerous considering how frequently we can be unduly influenced by what we think we’re objectively watching.
The documentary also ponders the notion of perception — how the judgments we make based on the information we gather is invariably shaped by our restricted frame of reference. All Light discusses how biased assumptions can lead to observers drawing faulty conclusions — in essence, people see what they want to see — and on a grander societal level, Anthony investigates how we bring our experience to interactions with individuals who are very different from us, never entirely understanding them.
This last point is driven home during a tense meeting between McNutt, who is white, and residents of a black Baltimore neighbourhood he’s hoping to sway about the value of his aerial surveillance system. One black resident angrily points to Anthony’s camera, which is filming everything we are watching, pointing out that a white filmmaker can’t possibly comprehend the amount of racism that he and his community face daily. It’s a powerful moment in which Anthony silently acknowledges that he, too, can’t see the full picture.
Anthony skilfully moves between these different threads, while also incorporating scenes of people gathering to watch an eclipse as well as a focus group studying media consumption. As All Light, Everywhere builds in cumulative power, the viewer begins to question how little we really understand about all the data that comes to us through sight — how often we erroneously assume that, because we observe something, we think we can make sense of it. Few films are so eye-opening.
Production company: Memory
International sales: CAA, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Riel Roch-Decter, Sebastian Pardo, Jonna McKone
Editing: Theo Anthony
Cinematography: Corey Hughes
Music: Dan Deacon