Top of the Docs #39 – Sundance: All Light, Everywhere

Welcome to Top of the Docs, Flip Screen’s hub for all things documentary. This weekly column takes a look at the crème de la crème of non-fiction media. This month we’ll be surveying the best documentaries January’s festival season has to offer, starting with Sundance!

Scrambling around, frantically tearing apart his apartment, Harry Caul’s life has been flipped upside down. A surveillance expert who layers tapes together in order to create the clearest track possible for whoever his employer might be, Caul simply records. This act is neutral, simply allowing the technology to observe. Yet, as he goes deeper and deeper into his work, Caul becomes paranoid, and in the end, convinced that this neutral act could be used against him. Caul is the protagonist of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), a film that acts as an indictment of surveillance, its uses, and the subjectivity of what it captures. Since its release, the Patriot Act, Edward Snowden’s revelations, and a litany of other incidents have proved that we are being surveyed more than ever. Despite this being common knowledge, many of us feel fine. “If you don’t have anything to hide, why are you worried?” is a question that often comes about. A question that lies far too much on the premise that all of this captured footage and collated data is neutral, and that it can’t in certain contexts, or with a misleading presentation, be used against you.

All Light, Everywhere is Theo Anthony’s follow up to his acclaimed Rat Film. It looks at the neutrality of science, mostly focusing on the use of police body cameras, but expanding to topics such as 19th century eugenics-like theories surrounding the link between criminality and skull size. What we learn throughout its course is that repeatedly establishment figures have tried to pass off science as neutral, when this is far from the case. For example, we discover that police body cameras are purposefully low quality, making it difficult to see in the dark. This is in order to keep things neutral. The officer wouldn’t be able to see in the dark, so it is unfair – and could even sway a jury – if footage was presented that is not representative of what the officer actually saw. There are of course no sinister connotations here. Also, the fact that the camera’s placement on the body, as well as its wide-angle, and therefore movement emphasising, lens does not make it into the discussion surrounding realism.

Given the growing importance of the need for body cams to hold police officers accountable for their actions, it is fascinating to see the lengths at which manufacturers and the police themselves will go to not only manipulate the technology in their favour, but also convince themselves and others that it is in the name of neutrality. It isn’t their fault they forgot to turn the camera on, it just doesn’t do it itself; blame the technology, not the explicitly violent systems that facilitate its creation. And this is the thing, by taking a wider historical analysis, All Light, Everywhere shows us that this has been happening for hundreds of years. And not just regarding body cameras, but who is policed, how to identify suspects, and even how we “predict” who will commit a crime. “Neutral” science presented to us by explicitly political bodies is never neutral. It has a direct aim, to exonerate any blame from   those that then follow the so-called “neutral” findings.

This is of course not always the case, and to believe so would be ridiculous. But All Light, Everywhere shows us that in terms of policing, “neutral” is never the case. It is a powerful documentary that enrages you in exactly the right way – with direction. We have known for a long time that the police act in direct self-interest, serving themselves and capital. To watch how they try to justify this in Anthony’s documentary is chilling. One of the hidden gems from this year’s Sundance, Anthony has quietly made one of the most vital documentaries of the year, one that shows nearly 50 years on that Harry Caul’s breakdown in trust was more than justified.

Director: Theo Anthony

Producers: Jonna McKone, Sebastian Pardo, Riel Roch Decter

Cast: Keaver Brenai (Narration)

Header image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival