The Terrifying Sundance Doc Exposing How Cameras Will Watch Your Every Move
The ruminative documentary “All Light, Everywhere” explores how police body cams and aerial surveillance are bringing Big Brother to Baltimore.
At the climax of All Light, Everywhere, a provocative documentary about surveillance, a white businessman sits at the front of a Baltimore community meeting, presenting the entirely Black group with his plan for reducing the city’s crime. The device he’s proposing is a spy plane—a flying clump of cameras that would hover over urban areas taking second-by-second photographs to beam down to Earth in real time. The initiative, he insists, would be a deterrent for potential criminals: They’d know they were always being watched.
As the community members learn more about the program, the meeting turns to mayhem. “If you want to sell this program, turn the camera around. The community is not at all interested in being surveilled,” a community pastor cries at one point. “Your perspective is different from mine,” he adds. “What are you looking at?”
Such unnerving episodes are found throughout All Light, Everywhere, director Theo Anthony’s rumination on how modern technology is turning our country into a surveillance state. Like Anthony’s previous effort Rat Film, his documentary often focuses on Baltimore, where various new state programs are threatening residents’ safety and privacy. The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, is alluring and ambitious, toggling among a number of peripherally related scenes to create a wider portrait of the dangers of advanced tech.
One of the more disturbing—and at times funny—chapters occurs at the headquarters of Axon Enterprise, a company that develops tech products and weapons for law enforcement. As a cheesy spokesman leads Anthony into the bowels of the building, we see an assembly line of workers and machines creating tasers, body cams, and other tools for police. Without a note of irony, the Axon official walks us through a disturbing simulation of tasing—showing us how the weapon clips onto a victim’s skin or clothing to shock them.
The spokesman, all too excited to show off his toys, becomes a recurring joke in the film—as when he reads out Axon’s many empty “core values” to the camera. Own it. Be obsessed. Join forces. Expect candor. Anthony also includes a number of moments that the executive clearly believes will be cut out of a final film; we watch as he becomes an eager performer, awkwardly revving himself up to turn his charm on for the camera and then going slack once the performance is over.
These sequences at Axon headquarters are intercut with a police-training session in Baltimore, where officers learn how to use Axon’s new body cam technology. As police are outfitted with the devices, Anthony uses voiceover and body cam footage to explain how the cameras aren’t the unbiased “all-seeing eye” that the trainer is making them out to be. Rather, they’re a wholly subjective gaze—offering a one-sided window into an event that eliminates any view of the policeman wearing it.
The film is clear in demonstrating how the body cams, supposedly meant to increase accountability, are actually designed to exonerate police. “We want to mimic what the human eye can see,” the Axon executive says, explaining why his team limits the quality of the body cam’s lens. “If you go beyond that, now you’re going to see things that maybe a jury would say, ‘Well, the video saw that this was a squirt gun, not a real gun.’ But the officer can’t see that. You want to see what he saw.”
Anthony also looks back in time to make his point, demonstrating how the earliest movie cameras were aligned with guns. In a historical sequence, we learn about the development of a late-1800s device for chronophotography—or the capturing of moving images—called the Janssen revolver. True to its name, the gadget’s inventor based the design off of the rotating cylinder of the revolver.
Perhaps most ambitiously, Anthony also turns a lens on his own filmmaking. There are several moments where he shows his own editing software at work, driving home the reality that All Light, Everywhere isn’t coming out of nowhere—it’s a vision and a story created by a filmmaker behind a computer screen.
Similarly, in one memorably ethereal shot, Anthony films a woman sitting silently at a table as a fern appears to levitate and revolve behind her. A moment later, we see the scene from a different vantage point, where it’s obvious that the fern is dangling from hidden threads. Like the Baltimore pastor who demanded that the spy cam purveyor “turn the camera around,” Anthony understands that whoever’s controlling the camera controls the perspective—and therefore holds the power.
Toward the end of the documentary, an intertitle informs us that, in December 2019, the Baltimore Police Department began a six-month pilot of the aerial surveillance program, making it the first American city to use the spy cam to deter violent crime. Despite the community’s protests, Big Brother had arrived in Baltimore. And as All Light, Everywhere suggests, this is just the beginning.