June 13, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Theo Anthony
Culture Representation: The documentary “All Light, Everywhere” features a group of predominantly white people (with some African Americans), talking about policing through video surveillance, facial recognition and other forms of visual identification.
Culture Clash: Opinions vary on how increased video surveillance and use of facial recognition technology can affect privacy and social justice issues.
Culture Audience: “All Light, Everywhere” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in how video surveillance technology is used in modern policing, with perspectives heavily slanted toward those who are in law enforcement or those who profit from this technology.
“All Light, Everywhere” gives a broad—but not essential—overview of the intersections between video surveillance technology and law enforcement. The documentary can be informative, but it sometimes loses focus and overlooks some major issues. The movie confirms what’s obvious to most people who are aware of social injustice: There’s a huge racial disparity between those who are controlling and profiting from video surveillance used by law enforcement and those who are usually the targets of surveillance profiling.
Directed by Theo Anthony, “All Light, Everywhere” attempts to do something a little different from what most documentaries would do when covering this hot-button topic: Instead of having the typical blend of archival footage, documentary interviews and on-location footage, “All Light, Everywhere” tries to look artsy by including information and footage that has to do with the biology of eyesight. Throughout the documentary, there are several close-ups of people’s eyes. The documentary has voiceover narration by Keaver Brenai that’s almost robotic, to make “All Light, Everywhere” sound almost like a scientific documentary. It isn’t.
“All Light, Everywhere” opens with striking visuals, by having close-ups of the insides of eyes, as the narrator explains that the optic nerve is a blind spot. In this documentary that gives a lot of screen time to discussing and showing body cam technology and aerial surveillance, there are repeated mentions that no matter how advanced this technology might get, there will always be blind spots. The point is made several times that who is controlling and editing the surveillance footage can be one big blind spot too.
The documentary doesn’t come right out and say the words “white male privilege,” but it’s very obvious when looking at who’s been put in charge of this technology and who gets the biggest leadership roles in deciding when and where this technology will be placed. In fact, the people who get the most screen time to talk in this documentary are three white men who represent the three factions that are the most involved in how video surveillance is used when policing communities:
The Corporate Manufacturer: Steve Tuttle is Axon International’s principal of TASER CEW sales and the company’s former vice president of strategic communications, the title that he had when he gave this documentary film crew a tour of Axon headquarters in Scottsdale, Arizona. Tuttle’s guided tour of Axon (which includes several product demonstrations) takes up about 20 minutes of this 109-minute movie. Axon is best known for being the market leader in making Taser guns, but the company also manufactures and sells body cams used by law enforcement.
The Law Enforcement Officer: Sergeant Robert Corso of the Baltimore Police Department is shown leading a training session for Baltimore PD officers on the use of body cams. Just like the Axon company tour, this training session is another big part of this documentary that looks very much like it would be right at home in an electronic press kit. (There’s a fairly even mix of white cops and non-white cops in this training session.) The documentary crew wasn’t allowed to film the room’s video screen when Corso played footage of a real-life cop/civilian confrontation caught on body cam. However, the cops’ reactions to this body cam footage are worth seeing, because these reactions are the most spontaneous part of this training session that’s in the documentary.
The Entrepreneur: Ross McNutt, CEO/founder of Persistent Surveillance Systems, can probably be considered the most divisive person in the documentary. From May to August 2016, his private company (headquartered in Dayton, Ohio) secretly flew a surveillance plane in Baltimore to record video footage of street protests against the police’s 2015 shooting death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who was African American. According to “All Light, Everywhere,” not even the mayor of Baltimore knew about this secret surveillance. When the surveillance was made public, it caused a firestorm of controversy that continues today over how much control private companies or governments should have when conducting this type of surveillance and how they use data. Persistent Surveillance Systems has software called EyeView, which McNutt describes as being like a live version of Google Earth.
The most impactful part of “All Light, Everywhere” is not in the canned and rehearsed talk given in company guided tours or in police training sessions. It’s in the raw dialogue that’s shown during an informal community meeting that McNutt asked for, in an attempt to get back in the good graces of Baltimore’s African Americans, who felt that his company’s secret surveillance plane (which has since been grounded) targeted them over any other racial group. In the documentary, McNutt openly says that he wants enough community support so that he can get permission to start up the plane surveillance again.
The meeting isn’t very large (less than 20 people seemed to be in attendance), but everyone in the meeting except for McNutt is black or African American, and there’s only one woman in the room. The documentary notes that McNutt hired an African American man named Archie Williams, who lives in Baltimore, to be a “community liaison” for McNutt to persuade Baltimore’s African American community that his company’s surveillance will be good for the community. McNutt’s main argument to get people on his side is that the surveillance will help deter crime. McNutt lets Williams do most of the talking/sales pitch on behalf of Persistent Surveillance Systems, but Williams and McNutt get an expected amount of skepticism and opposition.
The discussion quickly turns heated, as one man (whose face is blurred out in the documentary, but he identifies himself as a Haitian immigrant) voices the most distrust of what McNutt wants to do. This concerned citizen says that he has serious reservations about how the surveillace footage is going to be used without people’s permission. He also vigorously opposes a private company being in charge of this type of surveillance, compared to a government-run agency that is more likely to be accountable to the public.
The debate devolves into a loud argument, while McNutt can be seen either smirking, looking like a deer caught in the headlights, or slightly stammering as he tries to explain his point of view. The only woman in the meeting seems to be in favor of what McNutt wants to do because she thinks the extra surveillance will be effective in preventing crime. Some of the men also seem to support what McNutt says his intentions are. But quite a few of the men are opposed. One of the objectors mentions that in this era where there are cameras in so many public places, all that video surveillance still doesn’t deter criminals in high-crime areas.
And then there’s the issue of race in the U.S. criminal justice system, because people of color who commit crimes get disproportionately harsher punishments than white people who commit the same crimes. The documentary points out that because aerial surveillance works best in areas that aren’t hidden by trees, the surveillance is less likely to record criminal activity in many tree-heavy areas. These tree-heavy areas are usually in predominantly white, suburban neighborhoods. Financially disadvantaged people and people of color in big cities tend to live in urban areas that are less-populated by trees, compared to the suburbs. Therefore, it’s easy to conclude which types of neighborhoods that aerial surveillance will most likely be used for policing.
What this documentary should have had is insightful analysis of how people are profiting from selling surveillance data to law enforcement and other entities. That information is a lot more revealing than showing demos of body cams. (The 2020 documentary “Coded Bias” has an excellent documentary investigation of how surveillance and facial recognition technology are used and abused in racial profiling. )
It can certainly be appreciated that “All Light, Everywhere” director Anthony made an attempt for this documentary to not follow a predictable format. For example, the movie intersperses the contemporary footage with various segments about the history of public surveillance in the pre-digital age and how that surveillance was used by law enforcement and during wartime. Drones are basically doing an improved, easier-to-control version of what carrier pigeons used to do in the pre-technology era.
The documentary also mentions 19th century pioneers Alphonse Bertillon, a French police officer who introduced the concept of mug shot measurements; Dr. Julius Neubronner, a German who’s credited with the idea of putting cameras on pigeons; and Francis Galton, a British photographer whose system of pictorial statistics was an early form of picture composites. “All Light, Everywhere” points out that picture composites can be very problematic in identifying people, because there’s a high risk of mistaken identity from using composites, which aren’t considered court-admissible evidence in law enforcement.
Although many parts of “All Light, Everywhere” are interesting, the movie sometimes veers off-topic and tries to be artsy for artsiness sake when that screen time could’ve been better used to stick to the topic. For example, there didn’t need to be several cutaway shots of people gathered outdoors in Charleston, South Carolina, to look at the 2017 solar eclipse. There are only so many times that viewers of this documentary need to see this type of B-roll footage before it gets tiresome and it looks unnecessary.
Also irrelevant to the documentary is its footage of people in New York City who are participating in a focus group where they have to wear electrode-monitoring headsets. The documentary never explains what this focus group is looking at and evaulating. And that’s a big omission for a documentary about how the public might be affected by video surveillance technology that’s used by law enforcement. Better editing was seriously needed for this documentary. .
“All Light, Everywhere” also ends on a completely off-topic note by mentioning that the filmmakers had footage of students at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore who were given an assignment to write, film and edit their own TV pilot episode. An epilogue statement says that the filmmakers originally intended “one of the main threads” in the documentary to be this student experience of making a TV episode for an imaginary show, but it didn’t make the final cut. Instead, a few minutes of the footage play over the documentary’s end credits.
Viewers will be wondering why anyone thought it was a good idea to have this off-topic student footage in the movie at all. It’s another example of how this documentary would have been improved with better editing. “All Light, Everywhere” is only Anthony’s second feature-length documentary. It’s easy to speculate that a more experienced documentary director would have made better editing choices. Despite the documentary’s flaws, there’s enough compelling footage for people interested in the subject matter of law enforcement’s use of video surveillance. However, most of the technology in the movie will look very outdated in about five years.
Super LTD released “All Light, Everywhere” in select U.S. cinemas on June 4, 2021.