Sundance 2021: “All Light, Everywhere” knows no bounds

All Light, Everywhere

Theo Anthony’s new documentary threads together film theory, politics, and philosophy to great success.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.)

Everyone is a filmmaker now. It’s so common that it isn’t particularly special in some regards, but that’s not to say we’ve reached the apex of the art form. In fact, the arc has been going for almost 150 years now since astronomer Jules Janssen created the Janssen revolver and, in the process, created what some consider to be the first film ever. Fast forward to present day and the approach hasn’t completely changed. But it’s not so much a matter of same or different: it’s a matter of more. Ubiquity is one thing, but omnipresence is another. It’d feel incomplete to approach the topic solely from a technological perspective.

Thankfully, All Light, Everywhere doesn’t. Theo Anthony weaves history, film theory, philosophy, and politics to explore the limits of perception in cinema, often while playing with the syntax of documentary filmmaking. It’s a dense 105 minutes, but it’s almost always riveting. It’s part tableau and part interrogation. The lynchpin, however, is how its literacy grounds the self-awareness it seeks to deconstruct. If every example of filmmaking here hinges on a god complex, this picture is an agnostic interrogation of those very principles.

As is clear from the start, nothing is centered in reality. Like how the eye is nothing without the brain, our devices are other tools of perception. There are people in the film watching a rough cut of the film; there are cameras watching them. Anthony and narrator Keaver Brenai give history lessons of cinema, its technological origins, and how science birthed it. All the while, they stitch this alongside a tour of the Axon Company, once known best for its creation of the Taser. Now they’re in the business of making police body cameras, which court cases use under the guise of objectivity.

Theo Anthony weaves history, film theory, philosophy, and politics to explore the limits of perception in cinema, often while playing with the syntax of documentary filmmaking.

Of course, it’s not objectivity as much as it is subjectivity made to seem objective. Officers accused of excessive force are able to review the footage before preparing a statement, retroactively fitting their words to whatever actions happen to be caught on camera. Even more so, this digital eye is unable to replicate the human eye just as it dictates information rather than perceives it. All Light, Everywhere tracks the intersection of art and politics. Beyond that, it evaluates just where art breaks off into perception, and how others can weaponize it.

There’s no clear path here, nor should there be. Anthony even incorporates that into the film’s point of view. Brenai takes the role of the narrator and gives context for what we see. Anthony’s role as a documentarian, however, runs parallel to that, using subtitles to relay his own intentions and perspectives silently. With this, he reflects the god complexes his own onscreen subjects have, reinterpreting them back into the narrative structure of his own work. It’s a clever idea, but what’s really impressive is that there’s not a whiff of pretension here.

Anthony doesn’t make this about himself. Better yet, he knows that’s not possible given his thesis, and he trusts us to perceive his presence as a filmmaker as much or as little as we so choose. Against what you might expect, All Light, Everywhere is… self-aware. It has to be. After all, self-awareness is the most introspective type of understanding. Given this context, the gaze of the film is never objective. That, of course, is impossible. It teeters between empathetic and leering but never into exploitation. The result is something tightly intentioned and loosely structured, even more than what first meets the eye. Art, politics, the pursuit of knowing—it’s all cinema. It’s all more.

All Light, Everywhere played in the U.S. Documentary Competition category at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.

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Matt Cipolla

Writer and film critic for hire who has worked with WGN Radio, Bright Wall/Dark Room, RogerEbert.com, The Film Stage, and more. Firmly believes that ".gif" is pronounced "jiff."

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