By Neil Giordano
Do you believe your eyes? Should you?
All Light, Everywhere, directed by Theo Anthony. Starting at the Kendall Square Cinema on Friday.
Do you trust what you see? How can you? Our eyes are no longer the primary way that we see; they have been swapped out for the filters of screens and technology. The suspicious mediation between cameras and our perception of ‘reality” has never been more ubiquitous — or more insidious. Perhaps what we don’t see, however, is at least as important as what we do see. But how can we become aware of what we don’t see?
These questions lie at the heart of the fascinating new documentary All Light, Everywhere, an entrancing blend of neuroscience, metaphysics, and technological history that has the smarts to apply some sly, subtle social commentary to its elusive subjects.
At first, the film seems to flitter among semi-connected topics: A marketing campaign that is testing its volunteers’ reactions to visual images; a tour of Axon Industries, the #1 maker of police body cameras, with its corporate spin doctor as our guide; an aerial composite-imaging system that was used secretly by Baltimore police to surveil the city. Interspersed into these “storylines” are narrated forays into the history of early photography along with B-roll of ordinary people preparing to view the 2017 solar eclipse with their own cameras (and eyes). This unrelenting focus on the production and consumption of visual imagery transforms the film into an almost fractal experience. It becomes a bit too much: the sheer ubiquity of people looking, eyes looking, images to be seen and consumed and interpreted, examinations of the various technologies serving up new pictures to be mediated. The unsettling point of this unconventional documentary seems to be to distort rather than clarify the subject at hand — and that may be just what director Theo Anthony wants.
The underlying political relevance of the film is transparent. We live in a surveillance society, consenting (though not always consciously) to being filmed, watched, and recorded by corporations hoping to sell us products based on the data they gather. The government snoops in the name of crime prevention and law enforcement. The value of the latter has been hotly debated in the last few years: George Floyd’s murder being a prime example. Here the police body cameras showed us what we believe to be an “objective” record of events, footage of police brutality and murder. But body camera images have been weaponized by both sides, each seeking to prove something that will help their case. What Axon Industries sells to police forces (and to the general public) is that they are confident their cameras will tell the “truth” about any police action. Accountability is promoted as their product’s best feature. But it is more than that — “behavior will change ” because of the presence of cameras, that they will inhibit bad behavior.
But what do body cameras actually show us? Are these videos an authentic record of reality? The documentary examines, abstractly at first and then far more concretely, how there is always bias. Where is the camera located on the body? Does its wide-angle lens distort our understanding of action? How is this data interpreted and by whom? There are so many levels of interpretation that “objectivity” has turned into a myth.
The film’s looks back into the past are also illuminating, unsettling illustrations of how camera technology has almost always been co-opted for violent and authoritarian uses, whether it be the American military tracking the enemy on the battlefield or in the early experiments in composite imaging used by police to profile criminals. The latter presages the now rampant use of facial recognition technology, its marketed value undercut by its practical limitations as well as ethical muddiness.
The irony is not lost that what we’re looking at is itself a film, another visual entity that requires us to watch and to mediate. The film’s meta-commentary confesses that its stochastic manipulation is by design. Highly kinetic editing leads our brains to make connections in ways that excited Eisenstein at the dawn of film a century ago: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The mind demands order, so the juxtaposition and collision of images generates meanings that did not exist in individual images.
Anthony draws on history to help us make sense of a visual world that is increasingly fleeting and fragmented. The film is reminiscent, in style and subject matter, of the works of Errol Morris. This goes for its sometimes desultory exposition, as well as its approach to epistemology. (Morris explores these issues in all of his films, as well as in his essays in his books Believing Is Seeing and The Ashtray.) In the third act of All Light, Everywhere, a well-placed quotation from Frederick Douglass summaries the central issue: “We all feel that there is something more. That the curtain has not yet been lifted. There is a prophet with us forever whispering that behind the seen lies the immeasurable unseen.” The “immeasurable unseen” may not be possible to capture on cameras, no matter how many we use or how hard we strive for an elusive objectivity. Perhaps it is more important for us to understand that urge for “something more” should lead to examining how, why, and for whom the image was made.
Neil Giordano teaches film and creative writing in Newton. His work as an editor, writer, and photographer has appeared in Harper’s, Newsday, Literal Mind, and other publications. Giordano previously was on the original editorial staff of DoubleTake magazine and taught at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.