Shining a light on the surveillance state
‘All Light, Everywhere’ focuses its lens on the history of policing

Image provided by Theo Anthony.

With Zoom invading our personal space on nearly a daily basis, Theo Anthony’s award-winning documentary All Light, Everywhere is a much-needed dissection of the normalization of today’s surveillance state.

Winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s 2021 U.S. documentary special jury award for nonfiction experimentation, Anthony’s film is just as important to Canadian audiences as Canadian police forces become ever more militarized.

Though an experimental doc that reads more like an artistic video essay, All Light, Everywhere examines important subjects including the history of surveillance, the historical and technological linkage between military and surveillance as well as the idea that the eye is the original camera.

With the panopticon of the western surveillance state as a focal point, the film bounces between the creation and use of police force tools — such as body cameras and tasers — and an educative format of the history that led to the body cam.

The film’s focus on how the camera is linked to violence is well done. The connection documenting how the design for the Gatling gun inspired astronomer telescope designs, which in turn inspired long-range missile launcher designs, is clearly laid out for the viewer.

There is also, of course, the obligatory history of police department phrenology that is often the focus of civil authority topics, but again, this is done well in the film. French police officer Alphonse Bertillon’s invention of physical feature documentation via photograph clearly highlights how Bertillon created a police bias of how to invent a criminal. The quote by Bertillon featured in the film — “[the eye] only looks for that of which it already has an idea” — remains hauntingly accurate in the practice of suspect profiling.

On a lighter note, the history of the pigeon as airborne surveillance officer is accidentally cute, with photographs of pigeons sporting cameras featured in the film. The history of how the military co-opted pigeon photographers to spy on enemy territory in the air is also an incredibly interesting factoid.

The present-day subject in the film of police surveillance comes in the form of Axon — creator of the body cam and tasers used by police forces — and the company spokesperson, Steve Tuttle.

Disturbingly, Tuttle explains how Axon designs their body cam “to see what [the officer] saw,” not what is actually there. In his example, Tuttle illustrates how, even if the suspect had a squirt gun, the body cam is to reveal to witnesses that the officer thought it was an assault weapon, which can only lead to the question: who are the body cams for?

The film is definitely worth a watch for the historical explanations and for a better understanding of today’s police protocols regardless of which side of the body cam debate the viewer is on.

However, the philosophical takes in the documentary can become wearisome — the narrator quipping off a sentence that on the surface may appear deep but does not survive closer inspection.

The film also runs a little too long because it is packed full of artistic sequences which could have been cut for narrative momentum purposes.

The pros of the film definitely outweigh the cons and, in the end, the documentary is incredibly educative and informative for those seeking a better understanding of today’s complicated relationship between police and citizen.


All Light, Everywhere is streaming now on YouTube, Apple TV, Google Play and Vudu.