Review: ‘All Light, Everywhere’ brilliantly interrogates body cameras and the ethics of the surveillance age

An image from the movie "All Light, Everywhere."

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

More than once during “All Light, Everywhere,” you may find yourself wondering exactly what you’re looking at. This is entirely appropriate, since one of the key points of this expansively brainy cinematic essay concerns the limitations of human vision, perception and understanding. You’ll puzzle over some of the images, many of them arrestingly shot (by Corey Hughes), gradually tease out their meanings and perhaps even synthesize them into a narrative. Curious metal gadgets pass through an automated assembly line. Throngs of people don protective glasses and gaze skyward on a hot day. A veiny, pulsing blob of light reveals itself as a closeup of an optic nerve — a disorienting, brain-tickling image that invites your eye to regard someone else’s.

The eye on the screen belongs to the filmmaker, Theo Anthony, and his decision to turn the camera on himself at the outset immediately establishes an ethos of self-critique. He packs a lot into this documentary’s heady not-quite-two hours: a peek inside the nonlethal weapons and mass surveillance industries; a critical portrait of American policing, particularly in Anthony’s home city of Baltimore; a series of interlocking lessons in astronomy, criminal identification and avian flight patterns. But given Anthony’s central aim — to expose the fallibility of the moving image and its endless potential for manipulation — he sensibly begins with himself, a maker and manipulator of moving images, someone in whose hands the camera can be not just an instrument but a weapon.


The connection between cameras and weapons is not made facetiously in a movie as rife with associative tangents as “Rat Film” (2016), the director’s equally nimble debut feature. One disquieting sub-thread surveys early inventions like Jules Janssen’s photographic revolver and Étienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotographic gun, the latter modeled on the Gatling gun and capable of “shooting” 12 images per second. These primitive, pioneering devices were meant to revolutionize scientific study, to help observe, deconstruct and quantify matters — distances between celestial bodies, patterns of bodily movement — that the human eye alone could not. But the data they produced were often wildly inconclusive, prone to varied interpretations and acquired from shifting, irreproducible perspectives.

Back in the present day, where most of this documentary resides, the image-capture industries continue apace. And while the technologies they’ve produced are vastly more sophisticated than their 19th century forebears, Anthony argues, they are no less likely to sow confusion and imprecision. Invoking Frederick Douglass’ 1862 quote that “beneath the seen lies the immeasurable unseen,” he rephrases that insight within the specific context of the photographed image: “Every image has a frame,” he notes, “and every frame excludes a world beyond its edges.” His intent here is to explore how, whether in the name of public service or private enterprise, that exclusion is often exploited and weaponized.

A person sits alone in a field of yellow seats.
An image from the documentary “All Light, Everywhere.”

And so Anthony takes us inside a Baltimore Police Department meeting where officers are trained in the use of body cameras, lingering not on the body-cam footage (which is pointedly excluded) but on the officers’ often-revealing reactions to the directives they’re given. He also shows us where the cameras are made, taking us on an extended tour of Axon, the manufacturer of Tasers and other products regularly used in law enforcement. Our guide to the company’s Scottsdale, Ariz.-based facilities is one of Axon’s key principals, though as he drops one casually contradictory statement after another — extolling the company’s commitment to total transparency one minute and pointing out its top-secret R&D department the next — you start to wonder if he’s leading the filmmaker around or vice versa.

One of the movie’s unspoken insights seems to be that the more a person or corporation harps on about objectivity and accountability, the less they can be trusted to evince any. That observation speaks directly to the debate around body cameras, which often have been held up as neutral observers, their footage entered into court evidence as an unassailable record of the truth. But Anthony handily demolishes that assumption, pointing out how a camera, equipped with a distorting wide-angle lens and mounted on an officer’s chest, creates its own skewed perspective and often promotes or rationalizes a police narrative. The officer’s point of view, which conveniently elides any trace of the officer’s own actions, is accorded an authority it doesn’t deserve.

The Baltimore Police Department introduced its body-cam program in 2016, a year after the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man, from injuries sustained in police custody. Around the same time, the police secretly launched an aerial surveillance program, partnering with the chillingly named Persistent Surveillance Systems to produce live-updated Google Earth-style renderings of the city during a time of rising homicide rates. The disturbing implications of this technology, promoted as a means of minimizing crime and serving the community, are unpacked at length in a series of increasingly fraught discussions among Baltimore residents, most of them Black. They argue at spirited length about a technology that promises criminal deterrence on the one hand and (even more of) a police surveillance state on the other.


In these tense encounters, Anthony’s camera holds fast on his speakers’ faces, one of which is strategically blurred in a way that urgently drives home his concerns about privacy and consent. The filmmaker doesn’t call attention to his own presence, though he does so frequently elsewhere, whether he’s cleverly debunking the special effects used in one scene, briefly stepping into the frame to set up a shot or, in a startling epilogue, pulling back to reveal the vestiges of a substantial narrative thread that was ultimately discarded. If perception has its limitations, this deeply sobering, stimulating film suggests, that may be another way of saying that it is fundamentally limitless. There is so much — too much — to see here, and no end of vantages from which to see it.

‘All Light, Everywhere’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes

Playing: Opens June 4 at the Landmark, West Los Angeles