“The optic nerve receives no visual information. It’s a blind spot. At the exact point where the world meets the seeing of the world. We’re blind.”
This statement delivered by unspoken subtitles captures both the intent and tone of the cerebral documentary feature All Light, Everywhere by Baltimore-based filmmaker Theo Anthony. The film is a meditation on surveillance, observation, police technology, privacy, and the relationship between filmmaker – which in this case extends to police and their body cameras – and subject.
Over the course of its 109-minute run time, the documentary deeply explores unique and interesting areas that link thematically to the notion of surveillance and the role of the observer in the process, from a factory tour of Axon Technologies (formally Taser) who created the police body cameras used today, the history of the moving picture and how its conception ties in deeply with policing, and a Baltimore community meeting on the prospect of being surveilled by a drone in an attempt to reduce crime that delivers some of the most poignant moments of the film.
This is not a film with answers or any sort of declarative statement at the conclusion. This is a documentary whose primary goal is to provoke thought in a complicated but necessary subject, while also weaving in more philosophical questions about the purpose of surveillance and the questions of bias in all things, and on this front, the film succeeds.
A lot of credit should be given to Anthony and cinematographer Corey Hughes, as they are acutely aware of the power they hold scene to scene with their camera and wield it in a more contemplative and wandering way that really captures the tone of the documentary.
This tone is further illuminated through the score of the terrific electronic artist and composer Dan Deacon, also from Baltimore. Deacon’s synth-heavy score is equally haunting and sweeping, accompanying the more poetic and cerebral aspects of the documentary in a humanistic way, albeit while occasionally overwhelming the scenes that could’ve used a softer hand.
The film uses narration and unspoken subtitles as a form of contemplative fact-checking, prompting the audience to ask questions about what they are seeing, reminding us of the biases that naturally occur in seemingly unnatural things like drone footage and security footage. In the example of police body cameras, something which is pitched to society as an unbiased recording of events as they occur, narrator Keaver Brenai asserts that “the wide-angle is used to document as much space as possible, but the angle also exaggerates motion.”
As is the case with a growing number of modern documentaries, the filmmakers themselves are as much a focus as the subjects. While this is usually a grating aspect to non-fiction storytelling, here it is necessary and Anthony and Hughes understand that their film is centred on the relationship and biases the observer has with what is being observed.
As the documentary format is explored and interrogated more deeply – especially post documentary boom thanks in large part to streaming – the ideas of bias and intent have been given more importance, and the form appears to be reacting to that interrogation by involving the filmmakers more often in front of and around the camera, as well as through moments of candidness where we are shown moments before or after scenes in an attempt to strip away the artifice of the film. These are techniques used often in All Light, Everywhere, even going to the lengths to show us the Adobe Premiere screen of the film’s edit, which is less capable hands may come off as a cheap and exploitative trick to create a sense of authenticity so that the audience can trust what is shown in front of the camera is coming from an honest place.
Documentaries from others in recent years deploy these techniques to create an aura of authenticity, while Anthony here uses these same techniques to force the audience to question his own biases, something he clearly had to grapple with through the making of this film.
There are a thousand interesting threads to pull in this poignant, thought-provoking documentary, which is something the filmmakers clearly also found in the creation of this project, with an epilogue showing us footage of Anthony and Hughes documenting a filmmaking course at a Baltimore high school that was meant to feature prominently in the film but couldn’t find the thematic links to the rest of the piece. It is disappointing we were unable to view this film with a large audience as it absolutely deserved the sensation of walking out of a film into a packed foyer bustling with people wanting to discuss their thoughts and feelings on what they just saw.
All Light, Everywhere is streaming as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival on MIFF Play until August 22nd.