In 2017, the filmmaker Theo Anthony released “Rat Film,” an improbably poetic, intellectually dazzling, politically astute documentary on the seemingly prosaic topic of rats and their place in the modern urban landscape. “All Light, Everywhere,” Anthony’s new movie, ponders a more abstract, less earthbound array of subjects — the physiology of human vision, the history of photography, the ethics of surveillance — in a similar spirit of open-minded, morally urgent inquiry. If the connections Anthony draws are sometimes vague and not always persuasive, that may be a risk built into his essayistic, undogmatic approach to reality.
And the attempt to capture reality in moving images happens to be what “All Light, Everywhere” is about. It starts with a quote from William Blake: “As the Eye — such the Object.” In other words, vision determines the shape of what is seen. Rather than a simple picture of reality, the camera selects, frames and interprets, often in the service of power and ideology.
This is especially worrisome when the camera is doing the work of law enforcement. Anthony’s main concern is the use of video and other forms of image-gathering in policing, a practice whose claims of objectivity come under steady, skeptical pressure.
Some of the pressure comes from voice-over narration, written by Anthony and read by Keaver Brenai, that bristles with rhetorical questions (“what future does history dream of?”) and theoretical formulations. The musical score, by Dan Deacon, adds an air of menace and suspense which sometimes overwhelms the images.
Luckily, the philosophical flights and historical disquisitions are affixed to a sturdy and eye-opening documentary structure. Anthony and his crew take a tour of the Arizona headquarters of Axon, which manufactures both Tasers and body cameras. An upbeat company spokesman explains the connection between those products, and his pitch is rooted in the sincere faith that free enterprise and technological innovation can tackle problems of public safety and government accountability.
Is he selling progress or dystopia? A similar question haunts the mysterious focus group that convenes from time to time onscreen, and also the Baltimore Police Department training session devoted to Axon body cameras. There, officers look bored and suspicious as a sergeant walks them through policies and procedures he claims will benefit the police at least as much as it protects the rights of citizens.
In observing these interactions — and a Baltimore community meeting on the use of airplane-mounted cameras to track movement on city streets — Anthony teases out the disturbing political implications of techniques that are often presented as neutral or benevolent.
We like to think that pictures don’t lie, and that data has no bias. But Anthony suggests not only that there is always a point of view at work, but also that images and information are readily weaponized by those with power, used for the classification and control of those without it.
In a manner that is patient — and sometimes even playful — rather than polemical, “All Light, Everywhere” contributes to debates about crime, policing, racism and accountability. In its final moments it gestures beyond those arguments, toward a very different set of ideas about what cameras can do. A brief epilogue documents Anthony’s involvement in a filmmaking program for Baltimore high school students, an experience the director admits he couldn’t figure out how to fit into this movie.
Its inclusion nonetheless adds the glimmer of a counterargument to a troubling account of some of the ways Big Brother is watching us — a reminder that the rest of us have eyes, too. And cameras.
All Light, Everywhere
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes. In theaters.