Any documentary that opens with its director examining his own retina while holding forth on the centrality of the blindspot – that black matter forever relegated off-camera and beyond the frame of our perception – raises a cascade of questions. The foremost being, «How does one make a film about what we don’t see, what we don’t want to see?» If you’re more abstract artist than a documentarian like Theo Anthony (Rat Film, Subject to Review), you acknowledge that limitation throughout the process, making the viewer constantly aware that the image onscreen is not a «reproduction» of reality, but a «producing of new worlds.»
So this would be a good time to state that Anthony’s latest All Light, Everywhere – which just nabbed the Special Jury Award, Nonfiction Experimentation at the virtual Sundance Film Festival – is a nearly two-hour nonlinear collage (barrage?) of images, from archival to contemporary to computer-generated, and sci-fi sound design that interconnects a mind-boggling array of topics. A brief list would include astronomy, the birth of cinema, eugenics, mug shots, militarized pigeons, the «photographic rifle,» body cams from Arizona, and the surveillance state in Baltimore. Because the director, whose touchstones include Harun Farocki and Chris Marker, is attempting to be a sort of roving, all-seeing eye while exposing its constraints, I will try to do something similar – to give a partial approximation of Anthony’s approximation, blindspots included for us all.
That said, there are a handful of aspects of All Light, Everywhere especially worth teasing out. Take, for instance, those body cameras. Most are developed by a Scottsdale, Arizona-based outfit called Axon Enterprise (though any allusion to Star Trek: Enterprise wouldn’t be too far off), which also manufactures tasers and has basically cornered the market when it comes to making American law enforcement battle-ready for Afghanistan. Anthony visits the chillingly slick company and follows the enthusiastic, middle-aged male founder around the facade-like premises as he spews his PR spiel. But what we learn on the margins, beyond the frame, is much more enlightening. Body cams, it turns out, are designed to not see what the naked eye can’t (thus infrared is not allowed). Conversely, it can only see what the police officer aims at. Whatever is outside the line of sight remains unseen. Or, as the omnipresent, monotone, female VO states, «The body camera operator both uses and is part of the camera…The camera moves but we rarely see who moves it.» Think about that. A technology designed to be a «neutral observer» for law enforcement has a blindspot when it comes to the officer wearing it. Add to this the fact that body cameras concurrently serve as a «memory aid» for those same officers – i.e., they are allowed to review footage before making a statement. They produce a narrative of an event – yet do not reproduce events! («When an image speaks, what does it say? Who gets to speak for it? And who does it speak for?» are words tellingly written across the screen.) Which could leave any reasonable American taxpayer to conclude that today’s body cam «revolution» is merely a multibillion-dollar mirage.
«When an image speaks, what does it say? Who gets to speak for it? And who does it speak for?»
Then there’s perhaps my favorite scene in All Light, Everywhere, which takes place in the director’s stomping grounds of Baltimore. At a community meeting, a different white male inventor of the «future of law enforcement» is there to sell another bill of goods. Only this time the everyday citizens – all Black – aren’t having it. It’s a very meta sequence – in which a discussion surrounding whether a private surveillance plane should be deployed to roam above the city day and night turns into an impassioned treatise on the notion of consent. Specifically, the fact that no human down below would ever be able to give their consent to an eye in the sky. And, by the way, as an unidentified man (his face blurred) notes, the inventor’s documentary crew with the white cameraman behind the lens is filming the meeting without having gotten anyone in the room’s consent! Which prompts the inventor to quickly turn to his product’s main selling point – the deterrence factor. Just knowing there is surveillance from above will cause would-be criminals to think twice, he assures the congregants. The only problem with that, as another astute Baltimorean responds, is there’s no such thing as deterrence when you’re a would-be criminal just trying to survive. The system itself has to change, he emphasizes in utter exasperation. «We’ve got to turn the camera around.» Indeed.
there’s no such thing as deterrence when you’re a would-be criminal just trying to survive.
If there’s one thing All Light, Everywhere makes crystal clear it’s that technology, since its inception – when flesh and blood beings became data points to be studied, whether in mug shots or onscreen – has been ruled by the blindspots of its straight white male creators, a hijacking of our collective futures we are still loathed to see.