A highly persuasive film about how we should be wary of film’s power to persuade, Theo Anthony’s discursive and disturbing “All Light, Everywhere” is a superb if sinister example of how the outwardly modest essay format can deploy arguments that challenge us to unpick our most basic assumptions. Here, it’s the idea that a thing and its recorded image can never have a 1:1 relationship: It’s not just that our eyes deceive us, it’s that we’re conditioned to accept the representations of those deceptions as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us God.
At the exact point where the optic nerve connects to the eye, there is a blind spot. This is likened, in the onscreen titles that carry much of the film’s factual information, to the world outside the frame of an image. It’s a structuring absence to which we are literally blind, and which initially seems to have little to do with the film’s first onscreen personality, Steve Tuttle, spokesman for Axon, a tech company that supplies two main products to U.S. police forces: bodycams and Tasers.
That the same corporate entity is behind both weaponry and camera technology is hardly a coincidence; indeed, it becomes close to Anthony’s central thesis as his film spools back in time to relate the development of early moving-picture machinery to Gatling guns, pistols and spycraft in the pre-World War I era.
These sections, narrated with uncanny calm by Keaver Brenai, are a boon to the history wonk and a fun diversion for the student of early film, but they’re full of warning notes too. “From what history does the future dream?” is a question posed a couple of times, and as the film expands to take in surveillance drone tech, police training seminars and the role of private corporations in community crime prevention, the fact that this tech, and the principles that underlie it can often be traced back to crackpot eugenicists and phrenologists, is sobering indeed.
As befits a film dealing far more in ethics than aesthetics, the shooting style is unadorned and the segments assembled so as to frequently show the means of their construction. Anthony himself sometimes appears, coaching his subjects, fumbling with the camera placement or trying unsuccessfully to get a pigeon strapped with a spycam to fly. And yet the film also moves fluidly into a more dreamlike, introspective register at times, aided by Dan Deacon’s excellent, disquieting score, that ebbs and then roars to weirdly anxiety-inducing electronic crescendos.
Information is intuitively amassed as historical documentation abuts modern-day re-creations which rub elbows with onscreen web searches and online clips. But there are also asides that prove through showing: A sequence in a mall shot on an Axon body cam is worth a thousand words about how the nature of its lens design makes subjects appear to be looming closer, and makes movements look more severe, than they are. A trip to a water fountain looks like the beginning of a riot, and in our age of heightened awareness around police brutality, acquiring the tools to decode footage like this feels like an urgent project.
Throughout the film, which also takes in a gratifyingly fractious meeting between Ross McNutt, the CEO of an aerial surveillance company, and the local Baltimore community whose approval he is trying to win, it’s the footage from Axon that provides the most startling insights. Whether roaming the factory floor where the equipment is assembled, as workers in blue overalls avert their eyes, or proudly explaining the deeply questionable decision to have the cameras mimic as closely as possible what the police officer sees — and nothing else — the disconnect between Tuttle’s salesman’s patter and the morally dubious tech he is shilling for is quite often breathtaking.
At one point, there’s a practice scenario in the desert in which several people draw their guns on a dummy in the desert, which fires up their Axon bodycams. The dummy has a face drawn on it. It is grimacing.
Anthony’s 2016 doc “Rat Film” used Baltimore’s rodent population as a provocative microcosmic social metaphor, and this absorbing and often eerie exploration shows the same mercurial but penetrating intelligence, though it doesn’t quite close the pincer movement between the past and the present. Instead the film’s historical investigations and its modern-day analysis operate like the twin barbs of a Taser, and we must complete the circuit with our own fizzing lines of electric, synaptic connection.
It’s a rewarding if slightly frustrating project, but then it would be a betrayal of the premise of “All Light, Everywhere” if it supplied us with anything more than a tiny, ephemeral, vertiginous glimpse of all the things we cannot see, and a healthy distrust of those who claim to see them.