You’re being watched.
That’s what the film “All Light, Everywhere,” which premiered Jan. 31 at the Sundance Film Festival, wants you to remember. Not only are you being watched, you’re being recorded and someone is sitting at their desk somewhere and putting together their own narrative about the things they are observing about you.
In this film, which feels and looks like an indie PSA, the analyst is sitting at their desk in Scottsdale, Ariz., home of the Axon Enterprise. This software company, the self-professed “tech suite for public safety,” manufactures and calibrates many instruments used in the carrying out of said “public safety,” including tasers, high-tech police cars, drones, eyeglasses you’ve only seen in spy movies, and last but not least, body cameras.
Theo Anthony, the director, writer and editor of “All Light, Everywhere,” takes us behind the scenes of the company and the places in which these devices manifest. After a long sequence of staring into Anthony’s optical nerve, the main nerve connecting the eye to the brain despite not receiving any visual information, you’re now expected to interpret what you see on screen.
As we walk through the halls of Axon Enterprise, introduced by choppy scenes where an executive prepares a corporate-approved face without noticing the camera is already rolling, we are privy to the manufacturing process. The workers methodically piece together the individual parts of the tasers and body cameras that are purported to one day make bullets obsolete.
Before we see the dominoes fall, the movie lines up each tile in a purposeful and assertive line. An unnamed voiceover, who introduces themselves as the interpreter to what you’re seeing, places together the overlapping history of the image and violence.
From Étienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotographic gun to machine gun cameras, cameras’ watchful presence and influence have changed human behavior and observation in a strikingly similar way to the weapons they are modeled off of. When Auguste Lumière captured one of the earliest films in history, were the kids he was observing in then-French colonial Senegal looking at the camera, or the implication of the man behind it?
We skip to the present, in a Baltimore Police Department training for implementation of the Axon body cameras. In this room the film falters, catching the rolled eyes and questions of purpose from the only two Black women cops in the room and no readable reactions from any of the men.
It’s obvious that the body cameras are a nuisance, but in a trip around the mall with Anthony guiding the body camera’s “cinematographer,” much more sinister issues arise. The body camera is at the center of a person’s chest, not at the eyeline, so forget about the same point of view. The lens is easily obstructed by raised arms, and you can’t see what its wearer is doing, at all.
This is where the individual narrative moves to replace what the body camera can’t see. Narration becomes explanation, and the testimony is accepted in court without further pretense because “a camera can’t lie” and can’t “take sides.” This doesn’t prevent the police from creating a false narrative and using these cameras to their advantage.
On a macro level, a view from above is also collecting and analyzing data second by second. Persistent Surveillance Systems (yes, the bad feeling starts immediately) and their covert drone surveillance program of Baltimore is introduced by its founder, Ross McNutt. Without inflection, he shows Anthony how the drones can trace the path of a bus, a car or even a person with Google Earth-like quality. The first instance of the program in 2016 happened without anyone in the “troubled” city, even its leaders, knowing, just the FBI and Secret Service.
Now, in another scene that feels uncomfortably invasive, McNutt relies on a community member to convince his neighbors of the noble goals of the surveillance program. People object to being filmed by anyone, including Anthony’s crew, and as the conversation escalates between the attendees, McNutt just smiles to himself.
In front of these cameras, your every being is going through a slew of analysis and comparisons, similar to those that fueled the rise of AI and that of eugenics. In these scenarios, the suspect is already identified, without any notion that there will be a safer outcome for their encounter with law enforcement. Even more than previously conceived, the camera is a weapon of the state.
Different quotes related to seeing and observing divide the chapters of the film, but none fit quite as well as that of French police officer Alphonse Bertillon, the mind behind the application of anthropometry, or measuring of physical characteristics, to identify criminals.
“The eye only sees in each thing that for which it looks, and it only looks for that of which it already has an idea,” Bertillon wrote.
“All Light, Everywhere,” is not immune to this conclusion. It takes on the intersection of police violence, surveillance and anti-Black racism rather haphazardly, coaxing a reaction with the camera rather than observing one.
In all, the film’s warning is undeniably clear, and the impression it leaves will be slow to fade.