“All Light Everywhere” winds its way through fragmentary observations about modern surveillance society, unearthing a wide range of amorphous connections about its subject. However, Theo Anthony’s ambitious documentary unearths one brilliant connection — a fascinating lineage between the camera and the gun — and roots it in historical fact. For that reason alone, the filmmaker’s strange and alluring rumination on the ways technology exerts control over human life is a worthy follow-up to his 2016 debut “Rat Film,” which used Baltimore’s rodent infestation as a savvy metaphor for gentrification. Though the results are less cohesive this time, “All Light Everywhere” provides another compelling riff on the ominous forces governing everyday life that’s both alarming and awe-inspiring at once.
Anthony begins with a striking visual metaphor, reveling in the blind spot of the optic nerve, and setting the stage for an investigation into how little we see about the way the world looks back at us. The ensuing chapter-based saga careens from a warehouse that develops tasers and police body cameras, to training sessions for officers who wear the devices, the machinations of a spy plane entrepreneur, and the history of camera pigeons in WWI. An experiment with neural response comes and goes, if for no other reason than to deepen a sense of Orwellian themes at work. In the most compelling passages, he journeys back to the late 19th century, unearthing the little-known history of astrophotography and mug shots, finding a remarkable set of connections between camera technology and weapons of war. All of that comes full circle in a climactic confrontation about the nature of privacy in a world governed by corporate power.
It’s a lot to take in, and not every pathway leads to a gratifying outcome, but Anthony’s enigmatic style keeps the intrigue factor high throughout. As with “Rat Film,” a dispassionate voiceover creeps into the story to explain some of the more significant historical details, adding a cerebral quality to the journey that occasionally morphs into abstract tangents (“form is only a snapshot view of transition”) that don’t always serve the bigger picture. Nevertheless, it’s easy to imagine a lesser documentary on any one of the subjects that Anthony stuffs into individual chapters, and fascinating to watch him sort through them all in search of greater meaning.
One of the more alarming chapters finds Anthony visiting the headquarters of Axon Enterprise, the Arizona taser development company, as a corporate executive leads the camera through an assembly line and demonstrates the precision of its advanced tech. The danger arises by implication: We learn, for example, how the camera on a taser adopts the perspective of the shooter — essentially adopting his point-of-view, and creating a one-sided version of events as they happen. Later, in a police training session, officers learn how the continuous uploading of footage helps them put violent confrontations in context. Theoretically, that means greater accountability — but it also seems to encourage a greater ease with violent action, under the assumption that the camera will always exonerate them later.
In many of these segments, Anthony’s camera becomes part of the drama, a reminder of the many surveillance layers at work in every scene. It’s a compelling device in parts and distracting at others, much like the ever-present captions that sometimes replace the voiceover when explaining the backdrop of certain scenes. “All Light Everywhere” throws a lot on the screen, speeding forward with the zestful energy of Godard, and demands viewers get lost in its peculiar wavelength.
Pay attention, though, and its greatest arguments hold unique appeal. After the movie explains how the first portable camera was built on the same technology used for artillery, it’s no big jump for Anthony to show how a spy plane hovering over the Baltimore area keeps that correlation alive. As Dan Deacon’s ominous score fuses the various passages together, the movie blends its disparate time periods into a riveting meditation on the forces that compelled society to take control of its populace as the tools evolved to help make that happen.
It all builds to a remarkable climactic set piece, which finds a Baltimore community meeting — entirely populated by people of color — revolting against the white spy plane scion attempting to convince them that the object is there for their own good. Instead, they resist the idea of giving up privacy so that an unseen presence can solve crimes since it’s always a one-sided proposition. “Turn the camera around,” one man says, “and you will make it palpable.” No matter where it wanders, “All Light Everywhere” always makes it clear that cameras can kill us just as much as the guns that inspired them. The only possible escape lies in figuring out who’s pulling the trigger.
“All Light Everywhere” premiered in the U.S. Documentary Competition section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.