Theo Anthony’s movies are meticulously researched but, in his opinion, if he’s done his job you won’t know it. His new project All Light, Everywhere is broken into chapters and an epilogue that goes back and forth between the origins of moving image cameras and the use of body cameras on police today. It could be heady, but Anthony places these publicly available facts about both in a reflexive sequence that allows viewers to come to their own conclusion.
In the form-bending documentary Anthony explores Axon, a manufacturer of police body cameras, and for the sake of transparency in a film about understanding the things we view via camera, the director and his team appear on-screen periodically. If we’re to question police footage, Anthony found it only fair to allow us to question him as a filmmaker; this reflexive transparency is All Light, Everywhere is its illuminating strength.
We spoke with Theo Anthony during Sundance about gaining access to the body camera company Axon that he critiques in the film. The director also talks about the importance of including footage of himself in making the documentary, along with his ongoing collaboration with musician Dan Deacon to create the haunting score of All Light, Everywhere.
The Film Stage: How did you get access to Axon? Steve showed you stuff so freely. He’s supposed to be the guy who stops people like you.
Theo Anthony: I think it’s a number of things. First off is that all of these technologies are always sold to the public as increasing transparency between the institutions of power, be it the government, corporations, or policing and the public. The more you see, the more you know, they say. We always adopted that tactic of trying to take them up on that transparency, so that got the conversation rolling. The second thing is that we really tried to lean into the corporate language. I’m not a gotcha journalist. I’m not here to ask a searing question. I went over the whole shot list and we had extensive discussions before the cameras rolled about what I was going to ask. If you go online, and you search Axon, you can find every single bit of my film out there already. We tried to study as much of the Axon corporate literature and videos as there were out there, and really tried to approach them with similar requests.
So we’re always trying to adopt their language. So I think that definitely allowed us some entry and some leeway. I think the last thing––which is always important to acknowledge––is I’m a white guy going into these spaces. I am given a very wide berth of permission and access. I think it’s always about trying to recognize that as part of the equation. If I’m given access, to try to use that towards positive ends.
Can you talk about the reflexive nature of the documentary? We see you documenting the history of surveillance and you show behind the scenes of making the film.
What’s so striking about the state of the world and technology surveillance is everything is connected. You can be connected to the world from anywhere. The film always wanted to explore this network gaze in a really dreamy way, moving from scene to scene, topic to topic. Body cameras are what really started it. Here’s a very particular perspective, but it’s a perspective that’s hooked to the Internet and can be anywhere, shared anywhere. I think the more that we engage with the idea of the body camera and its power functions in part because it is cutting out precisely the person behind the camera. It became really evident that it would be hypocritical to then cut myself out of it. I don’t like being on camera; I don’t think that my own personal story is the most interesting. But I think it’s an important part of the calculus of image-making that needs to be incorporated without overly centering it. So yeah, that self-reflexive style was deliberate and we felt it was really necessary for the piece to bring ourselves into the picture within the frame as well.
Photo of Theo Anthony by Kambui Olujimi.
Why do you think organizations like Axon, and even the police units who use their technology, are so convinced that body camera footage is objective? That there is no voice in how it’s interpreted?
I think that if you look back at the usage of objectivity, it’s not so much about a universal truth so much as it is enshrining a pre-existing power. I think that they are interested in using the language of objectivity because it further enshrines themselves as the people in charge. It was my hope to engage with that and to show that actually there are some real contradictions here that undermine the point they’re trying to make. It became this really abstract, academic exercise at times, but bringing in stuff like how the camera sees. Obviously, it doesn’t see the officer, it doesn’t see in the dark, it’s not actually meant to show what happened––it’s meant to show what the officer thought happened. Later on, they can look back at that footage and revise their statement.
These instruments do hold a lot of evidentiary value in courts, and they can be used for good in some instances, I think, but that’s just all to say it was really important to connect these larger abstract ideas to the concrete policy and the concrete usages of the instrument. In short, I think that they’re so convinced because they’re used to thinking about it in a business model and not a critical model. Any serious interrogation would threaten their entire platform of power. So I think it makes sense in that light.
Will you talk about the scene at a Baltimore community meeting with Black citizens where they discuss the addition of cameras to their neighborhood?
That’s a really good, critical scene. I think it embodies everything in the movie in that one scene. As I was saying, I like being very well prepared when filming; having a clear line of communication with everyone that I’m filming with, if possible, letting them know the entire shot list, to really include them in that performance. The community meeting was unique in that it was the only scene in the film where we weren’t able to do that. And we were actually invited by Ross and we were kind of hesitant to go because it seemed a weird PR thing that he wanted to do with us.
But since this is a film that risks speaking about incredibly important things in an overly academic and conceptual manner—and the people in that room are taking all of these complex conversations, and saying it in the clearest, most impactful way possible—it was something that included us as the filmmakers. It wasn’t important that I wasn’t with Ross. What was important was the gaze that we were bringing was turned around back on us. That was a moment that really deeply changed the film and I thought it was really important to, again, include myself and include the act of seeing into the calculus of the image.
When it comes to research and conveying what you learn in a way that’s not academic or purely entertainment, I’m curious how you decide what’s the story, how it’s assembled, etc.?
Whenever I come across a topic or idea or an image, I am always looking for a deep dive into it. I didn’t discover anything in this film. None of this is my own original thinking, this is all based on a lot of research and a lot of reading. I’m constantly reading and adjusting our plan. I’ll see a footnote or they’ll mention a handwritten note and I’ll go to the bibliography in the book, and then that’ll send me to an archive that’s digitized online and I’ll literally be browsing the primary documents and just looking for that spark. I don’t think this film is really saying anything new. I hope that it’s showing surprising manifestations of pretty obvious facts that racism is bad or privatizing punitive structure is a bad thing. We’re always trying to look for non-obvious ways to talk about these major touchstones.
What do you make of the very foundation of the film medium having been co-opted by the military?
The militarization of filmmaking pursues a specific path. I don’t want to say that’s the only film history there is because that would be really false––also photography and filmmaking, as it exists distinct from other art forms, and painting and performance, it’s way more tangled and complicated than my film can really get into. I think the art that I’m most drawn to is the art that is aware about the material form that it is using, to present the idea, and that the use and the strategy of that form is actually a further commentary on the idea. I want to bring a more dimensional understanding to the camera object as an active participant in the making of images.
I don’t think we can back away from a lot of these roots, but also the ending tries to point to there’s all these other histories of images that we can explore. The act of seeing is a generative fact, you’re making sense and you’re producing a new world. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad world. There’s a deep and rich history with using photography to imagine better futures, rather than consolidating under these authoritarian agendas.
The sound design of the movie calls to mind Mati Diop’s Atlantics which is itself invoking John Carpenter’s music and soundscapes.
The score was made with my really great friend and collaborator Dan Deacon. We’ve worked together since Rat Film. We have an incredible working relationship where we place so much trust in each other. We have these really upper-level conceptual conversations, and then that goes down to what kind of instruments you want to use to explore the idea. Dan will record these sessions with musicians and he collaborated with this incredible musician Susan Alcorn, who’s a pedal steel guitarist. We were so drawn to her work because the pedal steel guitar has this weird between sound, it’s never one-note, it’s always resonating on multiple frequencies. That was so central to this larger idea of the project. He’ll record all these sessions and then he’ll make these really long, 45-minute compositions that I listened to.
We have this process of going back and forth and we’re always trying to evoke something outside the frame. There was no real one-to-one picture scoring. We both wanted the score to feel like it was haunting us from the future or past, but it wasn’t emanating from anything that we could see inside of the frame. I think audio, and this goes for sound design as well, has the incredible power to evoke something that the image cannot. We wanted it like we were floating through space.
All Light, Everywhere is now in limited theaters and expanding.