“You gotta understand – your perspective is different from mine.” Those words, spoken by a Baltimore resident reluctant to allow a drone surveillance company to operate in his neighborhood, seem to be the key to director Theo Anthony’s provocative non-fiction essay All Light, Everywhere. On one level, the narrative here is clear. Presenting a history of photography, Anthony draws a line from early devices like the photographic rifle to body-cams worn by police officers. The intent of this arc is obviously to cast doubt on law enforcement testimony, even with the evidence afforded by such cameras.

Yet Anthony, whose previous feature was the perhaps even bolder Rat Film, doesn’t position himself as a model of objectivity himself. Sure, we may be suspicious of how law enforcement uses cameras, but can we trust anybody to tell the truth with cameras? All Light, Everywhere covers some of this ground repeatedly, its message fairly clear from the outset. But if a documentary can have set pieces, that’s what Anthony has done here, taking what could have been a cautionary infomercial for the Axon corporation, manufacturer of both body cams and tasers, into a chilling look at the surprisingly violent history of photography.

The film is framed by a study that purportedly examines how people react to media. The results are never offered, but the meat of the movie is the answer: with a lot of complicated baggage. The set up leads to material at Axon headquarters, with a cinematographer helping lead a company rep into the best photographic light; this quickly brings home how everything we see is to some degree stage-managed. Axon has an open office setup, which the bland exec says encourages candor. This premise isn’t questioned on-screen, but it plays up to the plea for skepticism made early on.

One wonders how Anthony was given such unfettered access to Axon, but sometimes it seems like the featured exec isn’t aware how he comes off. After the unnamed exec explains that having a taser pointed at a person affects their behavior, Anthony asks if that’s also true of the body camera: “Look at the effect it’s having on me right now: I’m dressed up, I’m more professional — I’m not cursing right now.” That last bit is intriguing — what is this guy like off camera? “Cameras are changing behavior just like weapons,” he continues, noting that they, “can change behavior in a very positive manner.”

Anthony peppers the film with curious photographical history, like Julius Neubronner’s pigeon-mounted cameras, developed in the early 20th century and a gorgeous predecessor to modern-day drone cams. Around the same time, Alphonse Bertillon worked on the classification system that led to modern-day mug shots — and also to an attempt to determine what physical features made one more likely to be a criminal.

The loaded nature of image-making comes to a head in a meeting in which Ross McNutt, CEO of an aerial surveillance company, tries to convince an inner-city Baltimore neighborhood that drone coverage is the best way to solve crimes. A Haitian immigrant questions the intrusiveness of the proposal while others argue that they want crimes solved, or they’re under surveillance anyway, so why not? As tempers flare, McNutt looks on and smiles, like Kang and Kodos watching from their spaceship amused at the folly of humans eating themselves up alive. It’s not just cameras affecting behavior; it’s the mere threat of cameras affecting behavior. No wonder social media is such a minefield.

Bertillon wrote that, “The eye only sees in each thing that for which it looks, and it only looks for that of which it already has an idea.” In context, this is clearly meant to cast doubt on law enforcement uses of photography. But does it not also apply to the perception of those who mistrust police? If perception is unreliable — that is, interpreted only according to what we want to see or are looking for — that doesn’t bode well for any kind of objectivity at all, or any kind of solution to a hopelessly divided populace.

In an epilogue, Anthony laments a lost opportunity. The director spent a semester sitting in on a media production class at Baltimore’s Frederick Douglas High School. You can see brief footage of the students’ excitement and enthusiasm as they learn how to make their own images and narratives. But Anthony scrapped most of that thread, noting in a subtitle that he felt he couldn’t really convey that classroom experience in a film. To really live up to its title, All Light, Everywhere needed everybody’s perspective. Anthony realized that’s not possible, so the film, as he admits himself, failed on some level. But it’s a brilliant failure.

Summary
To really live up to its title, the film needed everybody’s perspective, and the director admits he failed on some level. But it’s a brilliant failure.
80 %
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