All Light, Everywhere blends stimulating narration, striking interviews, historical accounts and self-aware observational sequences to create a comprehensive look at police surveillance and the weaponization of photography over time. Director Theo Anthony’s masterful melding of far-reaching thematic ideas was met with applause at this year's True/False film fest screening of the documentary.
Body cameras are thought to be impartial, yet All Light, Everywhere shows how those used by the Baltimore Police Department are biased. In police training — which alarmingly resembles a high school lecture with cell phone usage, potato chip snacking and all — instructors frame body cameras as a means of protecting officers, not citizens. Wide-angle lenses make movements appear more severe and people closer, and police can often see body camera footage before making official legal statements, allowing them to craft narratives based on the video evidence.
The film opens with the human eye, specifically the blind spot at the base of the optic nerve, focusing on the slight delay between observation and perception. The body cameras presented can effectively eliminate that blind spot by storing the 30 seconds of video before officers hit “record.” The documentary, however, suggests that photographic instruments do not capture the world as it is but create new ones as people alter their behavior. Therefore, the film proposes that, through the invention of surveillance technology, humanity’s quest to defend blind spots have exposed new weaknesses.
In the film, a spokesman for Axon Enterprise, a technology and weapons company, Steve Tuttle, suggests body cameras improve behavior in the same way that the documentary cameras he speaks to ensure professionalism. Yet, Tuttle's persona feels like an act, supporting the idea that cameras alter, rather than document, reality.
Ross McNutt of Persistent Surveillance Systems refers to his company’s satellite surveillance technology as a “god’s-eye view” for “troubled cities.” A resident of Baltimore, where the program was implemented, expressed concern over private entities in policing leading to citizens losing legal protections.
The narration of the film astutely points out that the “god’s-eye” footage does not see everyone on equal footing: Steel protects corporate high-rises and ample foliage obscures suburban streets. Meanwhile, predominantly Black neighborhoods are often exposed to scrutiny.
Even worse, Axon’s technology can form algorithms for automatic police responses, such as calling for backup. Departments that use Axon’s equipment can already opt in to automatically forward data under the guise of honing the technology. In practice, this “predictive policing” harnesses the racial biases already embedded into other technological realms.
To elaborate on surveillance as a form of deterring crime, the film could have addressed cycles of over-policing and the War on Crime. Still, the documentary features a man acknowledging that crime can be a means of survival, suggesting prevention does not lie in surveillance.
Anthony plays with traditional notions of objectivity in his documentary. In a move that is meta but not pretentious, glimpses of the documentary’s editing process — seen as though through Zoom screen share — appear throughout, essentially breaking the real-life fourth wall.
This dense yet watchable exploration of nonfiction narrative weaves together themes better than most works of fiction, and the editing only enhances the viewing experience. The transitions are probing historical comparisons, and composer Dan Deacon's rich humming sounds build with the narrator, beckoning the viewer at moments of intensity.
All Light, Everywhere’s epilogue states, “Nothing ever ends, but there are always places to begin,” a call-to-action ending for a film that opens eyes — and optic nerves.