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‘All Light, Everywhere’ Review: A history of surveillance and authority, in abstract

Filmmaker Theo Anthony's work is an abstract, staggering and purposefully overwhelming journey into the tango between perspective and power.

When it comes to the aptly named, kaleidoscopic documentary “All Light, Everywhere,” it’s more a matter of which filmmaking techniques aren’t used than which techniques are. Across a 110-minute runtime likely to leave the most well-versed viewer with something new to consider, and the most restrained with two or three somethings to be unnerved by, the movie applies verité observation, black-and-white archival imagery, explicit stylization, candid conversation, grand operatic flourishes and synthesizer-scored sequences, fourth wall breaks and first-person perspectives, dialogue-less subtitles and voiceover guides who sound like Siri.

This isn’t a matter of pretentiousness or throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks on the part of the filmmaker, Theo Anthony. Rather, it’s the result of an artist fully endeavoring to harmonize with his subject. And because the subject in “All Light, Everywhere” is no less than the act of seeing, as well as what escapes our gaze once it’s asserted, Anthony has the wherewithal to leap across decades and narrative modes within single cuts, as he frequently does here. In one moment, we’re looking through the wide-angled perspective of a police officer’s body camera; the next, we’re learning about the early days of the “photographic rifle” in the 1800s, otherwise remembered as the first mobile camera. Not long after, we’ll rendezvous via silkily edited conversation with a man who has taken to privately surveilling the skies over Baltimore despite not having permission to do so, and someone from behind the camera will ask whether he believes this is what God sees.

Noticing a theme? Assumptions of authority and the evolution of surveillance make up the dual-lens through which Anthony plunges into the fallacies and contradictions we’re not likely to consider when we talk about perspective because we so rarely turn the gaze back on ourselves. “All Light, Everywhere” is essential viewing on the shoulders of those ideas as the U.S. continues its moment of reckoning, but it’s Anthony’s frank approach that is stunning and more than a bit disarming. His methods fashion an early tour of Axon Enterprise – the company which introduced Tasers and which here makes itself out as a vanguard of the latest innovations in law enforcement technology – into something resembling the prologue of some dystopian drama, led by the suspiciously jovial spokesperson who cheerfully gestures toward an entire floor of blacked-out windows faster than we can say “Skynet.”

It’s likely only a matter of time before you find yourself overpowered by the question of how Anthony manages to see some of the things he sees in Axon, to say nothing of the tidal waves of cognitive dissonance crashing over the banks of transparency the corporation likely believes such access is providing. Here, as is the case elsewhere when Anthony’s team sits in on a how-to lecture on Axon’s new body cameras for a group of Baltimore PD officers, prickly ironies bubble up naturally and with a touch of elegance thanks to the languid, dream-like cinematography of Corey Hughes.

As a matter of fact, there’s a lot in “All Light, Everywhere” that feels like a dream, as when a group of families decked out in protective paper glasses gaze skyward or when a close-up of someone’s eye jump-cuts to body camera components being transported along the mechanical arms of industry, not so much an attempt at juxtaposition but at balance. A part of us may feel the urge to resist those touches of aesthetic grace laced through observations of major sociopolitical implication. Emotion and logic don’t always make for the best of bedfellows, after all, and in “All Light, Everywhere” the paradox is perhaps most acute whenever a robotic-sounding female narrator repeats the poetic motif, “Of which history does the future dream?”

But these tensions, too, seem to be anchored to the film’s ethos as Anthony gradually but deftly creates a catalogue of bias in image-making. What we come to learn is how authority and innovation have always been dance partners in the tango of suspect ambitions. And while this in itself shouldn’t be a striking revelation, the ostensibly low-key delivery of those lessons are such that enduring apathies are also interrogated—the blind spots we may tell ourselves don’t exist but which we’ve settled into. The abstract, but not ill-fitting construction of “All Light, Everywhere” feels like an attempt on the part of Anthony to break through, to refocus our gaze and push the viewer to reconcile the aims of progress with its results. When, late in the documentary, Anthony all but gives Axon the stage to show off their newest products – networks of cameras implanted in every tool – it’s difficult not to view that progress instead as a minefield of pitfalls. Ironies continue to burst and self-awareness feels like all but a relic of the past, though this, like everything else, is in the eye of the beholder.

All of this is underscored, at first implicitly then vividly, with a thematic through-line about those whom the assembly line of policing technology has unjustifiably targeted. Indeed, some of the history the documentary delves into recounts efforts to create a database of figures likely to commit crime, and by this point in the movie Anthony has provided us with enough impetus to question motivations, stripping them of whatever good-faith might be argued while maintaining that most damning tone of cool-headedness illuminating every revelation with newfound immediacy.

It culminates in the emotional climax at a Baltimore community meeting, where the only white man in the room presents his ability to monitor the “troubled” city from above. A flurry of conflicting attitudes ensues, though the guest remains largely a spectator as community members, neighbors and activists of different generations and heritages joust about pros and cons. One could argue every new point made in the extended sequence is the correct point, even as it becomes increasingly, startlingly clear what the omnipresence of cameras has done not just to the world as we see it, but the world as we live in it. It’s one of the most captivating sequences I’ve seen in any documentary this year.

It’s a simple thing to acknowledge there is an observer along with an observed, but “All Light, Everywhere” stares down the two-way street with such zeal and staggering breadth that watching it may very well overwhelm you. Good, I’d imagine Anthony saying. Perhaps then we can see where his documentary, as philosophical as it is exacting and as matter-of-fact as it is interrogatory, comes from a place of urgency. Indeed, it seems to suggest on more than one occasion we might even be past that point—although the final group of characters we meet oh so briefly, a high school cohort of future storytellers, brings another truth into clear focus for the first time. Camera resolutions may only get sharper, but the impact of that evolution is nothing compared to the new hands which may wield them.

"All Light, Everywhere" is not rated. It's available now in some theaters. 

Directed by Theo Anthony.

2021

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