“Not Addressing the Core Exploitations of Capitalism is Essential to Capitalism’s Survival”: Theo Anthony on His Surveillance Doc, All Light, Everywhere
This interview with Theo Anthony about his documentary, All Light, Everywhere, was originally published alongside the film’s premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. It is being reposted today as the film premieres in theaters, including, in New York, at the IFC Center, where Anthony will do Q&As moderated by Brenda Coughlin and Sierra Pettengill.
In All Light, Everywhere’s opening shot, filmmaker Theo Anthony turns the camera lens on his optic nerve, as text narration explains that we’re blind at the point where the optic nerve and retina connect—there’s a fundamental hole in our ability to view the world that, Anthony suggests, we fill with our own biases. Literally baring his blindspot on screen, Anthony concedes to the viewer that All Light, Everywhere is limited by his own subjective framework.
His latest visceral essay film (following Rat Film and ESPN “30 for Short” short Subject to Review) follows Axon (formerly Taser) spokesman Steve Tuttle and Persistent Surveillance systems CEO Ross McNuttle on their respective quests to surveil criminal activity in predominantly Black communities, aggregate metadata, and crunch it all for a number that affirms something they already know: high crime will occur in “high crime” communities. With advancements in surveillance technology, A.I. and police body cams, police and the private sector can doubly affirm the wheres, whats and whens of criminal activity, and make more “professional” projections of future data to confirm and reconfirm what has already been reconfirmed. These instruments of “objective” measurement are meant to uphold patterns of white supremacy, rather than resolve or prevent them.
As an “unbiased” witness of a crime, Axon’s bodycam has a glaring flaw: the camera perceives what the officer sees but excludes the officer who wields it entirely. Its wide angle lens exaggerates the distance between objects in the frame: far objects feel farther, close ones feel closer. Ostensibly, the bodycam is meant to be limited to what the human eye can perceive. If the camera could see into the dark, that footage wouldn’t hold up in court because it is seeing something the officer can’t. But techies will also notice that the bodycam has severely limited “dynamic range,” or the gamut between light and shadow that it can accurately account for. The bright parts of the image fall off into a “pure white” mush, and dark parts of the image into “crushed blacks.” So, if the body camera is recording in a dingy indoor space and looking out into a bright window, it wouldn’t be able to render both because the range between light and shadow is beyond its comprehension. In this way, the unbiased camera effectively sees less than we do.
Noticing these flaws in the bodycam at the Axon headquarters, Anthony realized it would be hypocritical of him to omit himself and mask his biases in All Light, Everywhere, which is why he begins the film with the camera lens plunged into his optic nerve. His omniscient voiceover narrator, a throughline in his films, has taken on those biases, and announces she “will fill the hole” at the center of the film and represent its “blindspot.” She often contradicts the text narration that runs through the film simultaneously. A staged sequence shot on a set imitating a corporate setting, footage of people staring up at the solar eclipse with their ISO and CE certified “eclipse shades,” and chunks of history that paint a portrait of the camera as weapon, are weaved through a walkthrough of the Axon Headquarters and Ross McNuttle “trying to get his [aerial surveillance] plane off the ground.” The film is meticulously pieced together where it can be, but immensely disrupted and informed by what Anthony can’t control. When McNuttle tries to pitch his aerial surveillance system to the community, a scene Anthony did not plan for, the community members speak out against both the technology and the fact that they are being filmed by all white cameramen, including Anthony. The scene, which occurs past the halfway point, ripples through the whole film.
Anthony spoke with us about how he juggled the subjective and objective, and the controlled and non-controlled elements of his Sundance 2021 premiere All Light, Everywhere.
Filmmaker: As you’ve examined these kinds of spaces in the past, have you discovered anything interesting in Sundance’s virtual waiting rooms?
Theo Anthony: I have, yeah. Mostly I’ve just been playing mini golf with my friends. Mini golf has been a revelation for me. I’ve been toying with the idea of doing all my interviews in mini golf. My producers are going to get a headset too, so we can do all of our meetings [there] going forward.
Filmmaker: The omniscient narrator from your other films has taken on more of your likeness in All Light, Everywhere. It is less “objective,” much more opinionated. Why is that?
Anthony: Rat Film was toying with an omniscient authority that told us the objective facts of the film. The film itself kind of questioned that objective authority; I always say it’s a film that kneecaps itself. Subject to Review was a very impersonal narrator and a little more playful with it. You could see me sort of directing him and I wanted to make it pretty clear that I was writing these things. But All Light, Everywhere is a more personal film—not that it’s about me, but it is very clear that it is me making this film. Very early cuts felt like I was just building elaborate curtains to be the wizard behind. But we got to a point where it was clear, considering the subject matter of this film, that it was important to be as explicit [about who was behind the camera] as possible.
As it says, I’m sitting in this blind spot. It is always a necessary construction to fill out the world. Let’s be as explicit about that as possible. The voiceover artist of All Light, Everywhere is this incredible artist named Keaver Brenai. She slips from these almost serial killer monotones [laughs] to these raw emotions that crack through in unexpected moments. She just had incredible range. So, it was just to be explicit about my own role and authority in constructing the narrative.
Filmmaker: Did you always know you’d turn the camera onto yourself?
Anthony: No, definitely not. It was supposed to be this wandering robotic eye. We planned a lot of the transitions. You can see there’s match cuts between very disparate sections and that was always planned in production. The whole film was supposed to feel like this dream you were stumbling through, just picking up on things as you went along. I didn’t really see any need to bring myself into it. I think as we tackled more of the subject matter, these body cameras, and realized these other forms of surveillance function by cutting out precisely the person who is behind them, that it became obvious that it would be hypocritical to excise myself as well.
Filmmaker: I’ve been watching a lot of the revolutionary Third Cinema docs of the 60s and 70s. To combat the ethnographic, “objective” lens that colonizers used to harm colonized peoples, third world filmmakers almost always turned the cameras onto themselves, or conceded the subjectivity of their films through form. It is always subjectivity combating objectivity, rather than objectivity combating objectivity. Is that what you’re doing?
Anthony: I think it was always about bringing the perspective back into the body, even if we do give that appearance of the god’s eye view throughout the documentary. We always try to cut it back to us. You see that in the body camera sections, there’s a section where we go into a diptych, and they’re talking about that one, all-seeing eye. But here we have literally two different perspectives of the same scene in the room. We talked about this idea of composite gaze, of a perception that isn’t from any one elevated point but is created through a collage of different perspectives in conversation with each other. That composite gaze was always trying to account for the people, their position and also the instruments they use to record that vision.
There’s this Donna Haraway quote where she says “optics is a politics of positioning.” I love that. What you see is who you are and where you’re standing. If you can pull back the curtain and see that it’s just frail humans behind there, you can take away that aura of objectivity or authority which has been used as a justification to colonize and exploit so many areas of the world.
Filmmaker: In a utopian, anti-racist world, is there use for the objective gaze?
Anthony: [laughs] I look at science now as a model in a lot of cases where you have peer review. You have studies that always have to account for the instrumentation that they’re recording the studies with and there’s very clear communication about that.
I think that the word objectivity gets thrown around so much that no one actually knows what it means. If I could just have a little segue here, the root of objectivity wasn’t used in a modern form until Immanuel Kant popularized it in the late 1700s. The meanings were reversed, where “objective” was the appearance of something and “subjective” was the essence in and of itself. Samuel [Taylor] Coleridge, a few years later, translated Immanuel Kant into English, had a mistranslation and flipped the words. So, our modern understanding of what objectivity even is is totally off base. And before then, it was a term that was only obscurely used in optics. A “lens objective” is the material that collects light. Objectivity is not the light itself, it’s the material that collects and consolidates the light into a knowable form, and you have to account for the glass to understand the image. I think that’s beautiful. So, that’s how I see it, and I try to inject more skepticism of the word.
Filmmaker: The film has a habit of introducing images, like the pigeon, before we have any context for how that image, or pigeon, fits into the story.
Anthony: I’m really happy you said that. A lot of times in arguments there is a linear nature we’re taught: “Here’s what this means and here’s afterwards.” The film has its roots in astronomy, and there’s all these circles in the film. We do all these big orbits around this massive topic, but within that there’s orbits going back and others going forward. For some of them, you get the general idea first and then the specific, and for others you go from the specific and to the general. But hopefully they all reveal themselves to be orbiting around the same essential idea. We were really trying to break down that linear construction of an argument.
Filmmaker: The staged scenes shot on a set seem to be informed by the architecture in Axon, especially in the scene where nondescript suits watch people test a fictional device from the other side of tinted glass. Can you talk about how pieces of the film were informed by other sections in the gaps between shooting them?
Anthony: Even if the things we fit together did change, we had very deliberate plans for transitions and how the world would fit together. I think a lot of the sections are a very slick corporate space that’s been stripped of any personality, where you only see signifiers of domesticity like a fake plant or something. So, we were always looking for seamless transitions between spaces, and contrast. We had very explicit and strict rules about how to film, what we were going to film and what we weren’t. All these things were made to interlock with each other, even if the final variation didn’t come together until the very end. Every scene was in conversation with every other scene.
Filmmaker: But I imagine the scene where Ross McNutt [CEO of Persistent Surveillance Systems] pitches his aerial surveillance system to the community, and the Black attendants call out the fact that they’re being filmed by all white cameramen, with one man explicitly pointing to your camera, informed the rest of the film.
Anthony: Yeah, the whole film changed that night. It was going to be this dreamy ride through surveillance and we were being very meticulous about what we filmed and what we didn’t. It just felt too clean. For reasons that are explored elsewhere in all these military and surveillance histories, the film was also excluding me as the person behind it. I was the only cameraman besides the guy that Ross brought. That was a very unique scene, in that it was the only one we didn’t plan. For everything else in the film, we made sure to talk to everyone, let everyone know what we were doing and work that through with them. But for that scene, we were actually invited by Ross. He thought it would be a good opportunity for him to show the community side of his work. We went along initially to sort of appease him, get his trust and show that we were there to tell the story.
We showed up and talked to as many people as possible. We were four white people in a Black community center, a church. That was a moment where all of the ideas that the film is talking about in the abstract intersected with the then and now. It almost didn’t matter that we were separate. What mattered was that guy was turning the gaze on us, and we had to sit and wrestle with that. It really did change the film. To not include that would be an issue as well. Here’s a moment, the only moment in the film, really, where people are actually speaking back. That was very deliberate, we wanted to make a film that was focused on the perpetrators, and not the victims of, surveillance. We weren’t trying to make a film about what it means to be surveilled. As a white dude in America, it’s not really my place to speak from a personal experience. It was a crucial point in the film, and definitely changed the course of the entire project.
Filmmaker: I once asked Joshua Oppenheimer if he felt guilty for appealing to the death squad leaders of the Indonesian genocide so that he could infilitrate their lives and ultimately stir the pot that had gone still. He didn’t. He felt it was for a greater end. Anwar Congo, one of the death squad leaders he filmed, was even moved watching The Act of Killing afterwards. Others were furious. How did you feel about appealing to Steve from Axon and Ross from Persistent Surveillance Systems, and what did it feel like to be shooting with these people?
Anthony: I think there’s a lot of different levels to that. Joshua Oppenheimer’s one of my favorite filmmakers. I admire how he’s able to, in your words “infiltrate” those spaces without pushing them into a gotcha moment, but kind of judos and uses the force of that presentation to subvert it in the end. First off, the way that a lot of these technologies are pitched is on a premise of transparency, that they will provide greater insight into the practices of government, or corporations, or policing. So, whenever we approached them, it was always from the angle of “You guys are transparent, we want to know how it works.” So, we were already working through their language. Secondly, when I’m there, no matter who I’m filming, whether or not it’s someone who I am politically or personally empathetic towards, I always try to have a connection and a trust. In good faith, we are going to work on this together, I’m going to tell you what we’re going to do, and we’re going to work through it. Steve, from Axon, had our shotlist. He knew what we were going to do.
Similarly, I’m not trying to get them into a gotcha moment, I’m trying to use a certain performance and presentation to subvert itself. And lastly, which I think is very important: I’m a white guy going into these spaces and there is no small amount of privilege in their willingness to listen to me. I have a buzzcut, I dress in a vaguely military, work-ware, minimalist style [laughs] so I think people project a lot of things onto me. I try to be very aware of that and use whatever access I can for what I think is good.
Filmmaker: In the end, you choose not to frame the making of the Frederick Douglass High School students’ television pilots within your own film. A lot of white filmmakers wouldn’t understand why they should step away. As you decided to cut this footage almost entirely close to your final cut, what provoked it? Can you outline the transition of your thought process between wanting to include it, to not, to how it is ultimately shown in the film?
Anthony: Much of the film is an attempt to show that the act of perception is always a generative act, and the ways in which that can be used towards a particular agenda. One of the biggest inspirations for us was a speech by Frederick Douglass called “Pictures and Progress”, which we actually quote at length within the film. On top of everything else, Frederick Douglass was the most photographed man of the 19th century, and here he is, only a decade or so after the popularization of this new medium, telling people that photography is not about reproducing the world as it is but as it could be. That’s the sort of optimism we always tried to find, even in the darkest moments of the film. The ending is a gesture to these new possibilities that are already here, already happening, all the time. The frame of the film you just watched is not the one to prescribe, encircle or define that.
Filmmaker: The heads of Axon and Persistent Surveillance systems don’t seem to recognize that their life’s work perpetuates the patterns of white supremacy that have historically held Black communities down (Ross genuinely thinks constant aerial surveillance is good for high crime communities). They’ve even begun to automate that act of conservation with A.I., like the evil of eugenics multiplied by the capacity of supercomputers. Individuals like these two seem to do what they do almost unconsciously, automatically. Having spent time with them, is there really not a single part of them that realizes what they’re doing?
Anthony: Maybe I’m naive, but I genuinely don’t believe that most people wake up in the morning thinking that they’re going to do bad in the world. I think that everyone you see in the film believes that they are doing the right thing. Your experience, or lack thereof, defines that belief, as well as your ability or inability to comprehend the outcomes of your actions. But more importantly, if people are being hurt by your actions, regardless of your intentions, you should be held accountable. I try—not always successfully—to maintain good faith that people are just ignorant and not evil, but I’m deeply aware that any serious self-reflection on the parts of these corporations or institutions would threaten their very foundation. So whether or not it’s deliberate, not addressing the core exploitations of capitalism is essential to capitalism’s survival.