Theo Anthony on How the History of Cinema Led to the Modern Surveillance State

Whether he’s making arthouse documentaries about urban pests and zoning or ESPN films about tennis review technology, Theo Anthony demonstrates a historically informed commitment to social justice. Each film he’s made has been increasingly keen on addressing the power imbalances inherent between filmmaker and subject. His latest, All Light, Everywhere, examines the historical roots of camera and surveillance technologies while following representatives from Axon (formerly TASER) and Persistent Surveillance as they manufacture police body cameras and seek permission to deploy spy planes above Baltimore, respectively. It’s fitting that it is also the most interrogative and reflexive feature that Anthony, who is white, has yet made, acutely aware of the representational and thematic challenges of its subject matter.

Just prior to the film’s recent release, Anthony made time to talk to me about the evolution of the film, the theorists and books that occupied his mind during production, and his increasing presence in front of his camera.

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Hyperallergic: All Light, Everywhere is really your second film about surveillance, after Subject to Review. I was wondering how these are connected — if this idea rose out of this one, or if it was there earlier?

Theo Anthony: Yeah, actually I’m really glad to be able to be able to link these two. All Light, Everywhere started almost five years ago, and I actually made Subject to Review in the middle of it. I worked with the same composer, cinematographer, producing team, and we really treated it like this kind of phantom limb of All Light, Everywhere. We joked it was just another thread that went on too long. All Light, Everywhere is a lot more expansive, covers a lot more topics and history. Subject to Review is just looking at this one technology, but asking those same questions about power and authority.

H: Both Subject to Review and Rat Film have more omniscient voiceovers, albeit foregrounded in Subject to Review. At what point did you decide All Light, Everywhere needed a more self-consciously subjective, opinionated voiceover?

TA: Very early on we realized we were talking about this history of different media and technologies, this view from nowhere, this god’s-eye view, and the history of objectivity, which we were trying to complicate and deflate whenever possible. In my previous work I’ve always used the single voiceover, but in this film we were interested in having more of a Greek chorus and seeing how these different voices and perspectives could all fit together to form a much larger composite gaze. I think at one point we had three or four voices, and we eventually narrowed it down to just the two you hear in the film. We had specific roles for what the voiceover does and what the subtitles do. The subtitles are kind of like my director’s commentary, giving context to things that are outside the frame, while the voice is speaking to what’s inside the frame in front of you.

Director Theo Anthony

H: There is also a lot more of you in front of the camera with each successive film. Is this also about confronting the idea of objective visual evidence and how a viewer cannot see what’s behind any camera?

TA: Yeah, I think on a content level, as the film discusses, the evidentiary power of body cameras comes from the fact that you don’t see who is recording it, and it lends itself a certain assumed sense of authority. We found it productive mapping that onto the history of documentary as well. You look at early documentary, ethnographies always sort of erase the body of the filmmaker. We thought if we were going to be making a film about these topics, it would be hypocritical to not include myself in it. We were always riding this line, trying to make sure it wasn’t self-serving — it’s not about me, but I think it’s important that I’m implicated as the creator.

The funny thing is there was an earlier version that was a lot cleaner. You didn’t see me, and all these parts fit together almost too well. But just through conversations and feedback with trusted friends and collaborators, we realized that for this film to work, we had to make it a little messier and fuzzier and bring myself in more. So as we got closer to a final cut, it felt like parts of it were getting rougher and rougher.

Poster for All Light, Everywhere

H: What about the moment during the community meeting with the Persistence Surveillance CEO, where an African American man says something to the effect of ‘It’s always white people filming us,’ and points at your camera. Were you ready for that possibility?

TA: As someone who has worked as a journalist in the Eastern Congo, done journalistic work in Baltimore, who has been an outsider to the communities whose stories I’m telling, I’ve grown into this practice of making sure that whenever I’m filming with someone, we are very explicit about the boundaries of what we are and are not filming, and that we are including the subjects as much as possible. The community meeting was the one time that wasn’t possible. We were invited by [Persistent Surveillance CEO] Ross [McNutt] to the meeting with very little information. We were uneasy about doing it for those very reasons, and that was the night I think everything really changed, when we realized it couldn’t be this neat assembly, that we needed to implicate ourselves.

We were in a Black church that’s just blocks away from where Freddie Gray was killed, talking to people as they were coming in, saying, ‘We’re making this film, are you OK being on camera?’ If you’re in that community and you’re looking at four white people, and two of them work for a spy plane company and two of them are making an experimental documentary, you’re not going to stop and parse the difference. You’re going to say, ‘These people are outsiders.’ And rather than try to get into the weeds and separate who was who, being implicated and putting ourselves in the role of this outside gaze was productive for the film and made us rethink everything we were doing. There’s no easy takeaway from that. We just tried to give that [moment] the space and the agency to blow up what we had constructed.

H: It’s interesting that you were invited by Persistence. Did they know — and same thing with Axon — what kind of film you were making?

TA: The important thing to understand about a lot of these technology companies is that they’re always waging this PR war of their own. They’re trying to get their names out there and are very eager to talk to press in a lot of instances. Particularly with surveillance technologies, the way which they are pitched to the public is so often about increasing transparency, and that through that greater understanding we can have greater accountability. That’s the sales pitch. You have the trifold pamphlet, it’s like “transparency, understanding, accountability.” And I agree in principle, but in reality, these technologies only further obfuscate the way power functions. When we approach these companies, what we say is more like, ‘We think transparency is a great thing, we’d love for you to be transparent about how your process of transparency is going.’ You place them in a situation of either fulfilling their promise or appearing blatantly hypocritical.

Theo Anthony and Corey Hughes behind the scenes of All Light, Everywhere

H: You end with a thread which the subtitles say was a larger part of the film, but was all but eliminated. It’s about young Black students learning to think critically about how moving images relate to one another. Can you talk a bit about deciding to include that in the end, even if you decided there wasn’t room to include all of it?

TA: From the beginning, we knew we were telling this history of seeing and cameras, and it was a very particular violent strain of that history. But we always wanted to acknowledge that there were other histories happening all the time that weren’t necessarily centered on violence. Obviously, cameras can do great good in the world, and be incredibly important for people who would be painted as victims by these surveillance technologies. They can, in other hands, imagine other possibilities and generate different outcomes. And that’s been around from the beginning; Frederick Douglass’s Age of Pictures, all that. We wanted to be clear that we weren’t telling the whole story, and instead leaving these holes for other possibilities to seep in.

Our challenge was that we didn’t want to define those possibilities for ourselves, considering the roles we were in. The students were meant to be this thread of joy, of figuring out their own representation through these tools. There was this really beautiful footage; even apart from their participation in the film, it was such a positive experience being in that classroom for four or five months, teaching workshops, lending equipment, working on each other’s stuff. When we got to the end of that and put it in the film, it was doing all those things and was emotional. There was laughter in the film, which was really missing in a lot of earlier cuts. But there was something … It’s not even that complicated. You have a montage with a photo of a gun, or someone pointing a gun, or a cop in one image, and you have an image of a teenager — and not just any teenager, but a young Black teenager in a classroom. And given the state of the world we’re in — and obviously, everyone is seeing these images on our screens every day — you assume that person is a victim. And that was not a representation we wanted to enforce in any way. It’d be the exact opposite of what we wanted to do. We just realized it would not make sense.

Our time with the students, our conversations on both sides of the camera about how best to fit these images into the film, that is the invisible skeleton that you don’t see. The film looks that way because it was sculpted around those conversations, and it felt like an erasure to totally remove it. Having it at the end was a way of saying, ‘You know what, all of these things are happening all the time, they always have been, and it’s not this film to define what the outcome of that would be.’ We wanted to preserve a certain opacity with those subjects — that was a term we were using all the time, in the tradition of Édouard Glissant, a Martinique philosopher writing a lot about representation in postcolonial societies. People need to maintain a certain amount of opacity, and in that opacity there’s an agency in their own representation. In that spirit, we thought we could gesture toward this as an off-ramp to another history and another future that we aren’t defining within the scope of this film.

From All Light, Everywhere

H: As you’re filming, are you actively thinking about what you have cited, or do you tend to realize that your work is in conversation after the fact?

TA: We are constantly reading as we go. It’s always thesis, antithesis, synthesis — over and over and over and over again. We have an idea, we film something, something doesn’t work, something doesn’t feel right, we get together and huddle — we have a really close team, I’m talking all day with my producers Jonna [McKone] and Riel [Roch-Decter] and Sebastian [Pardo]. When we have something to show, we show it to a trusted friend and get their feedback.

It was a very head-spinning process. I feel molecularly changed by it. I feel like I started this film being one person and threw out all these ideas that I wanted to do because a lot of them didn’t work, and it was very humbling to learn why they didn’t work. As a filmmaker especially, in my position, it’s my worst fear that something that I make would end up reinforcing the very thing that I’m critiquing. And I feel that with everything I do. You can have the best intentions in the world, but based on institutional context or a conversation that is beyond your control, it can have an entirely different meaning. And the market is endlessly creative in coopting leftist narratives for their own profit. We’re always on the lookout and point people toward others who are doing the work. We’re not a lone island; we’re adding to a conversation that’s been happening for a long time. And that’s what keeps me grounded.

All Light, Everywhere is now playing in select theaters.

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