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Shedding ‘Light’ on those who are watching

From "All Light, Everywhere."
From "All Light, Everywhere."STD Limited

The validity of video evidence came into focus recently with the Derek Chauvin trial, when the grotesque killing of George Floyd was seen repeatedly from different angles and shot by various sources, including police body and dash cams, CCTV surveillance cameras, and from witnesses’ cell phones. The truth seemed obvious, plain to see from every vantage point, but still not beyond question, or so Chauvin’s defense counsel tried to establish. What came before and after? What was outside the frame? What was the motivation of those behind the cameras? Was there in fact any way of recording an objective visual reality?

The answer to these questions in this case favored the victim, not the perpetrator. More often, though, as Theo Anthony suggests in his complex, reflexive, epistemologically dizzying, enigmatically titled documentary “All Light, Everywhere,” the validity of images is determined by those who create and control them — the police and the powers that be. Anthony does not examine actual criminal footage for the film but points his camera at those who have developed the technology, systematize the processes, and use them in the field.

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Today the cutting edge of surveillance equipment is Axon International, the company that developed the Taser and now manufactures 85 percent of the body-cams that are used by half the country’s police forces. Anthony and his camera crew — who often appear in the film to undermine the illusion of objectivity — record a promotional tour of the Axon headquarters led by a gregariously gung-ho company representative named Steve. Steve at one point extols with unintended irony the company’s ideal of transparency and candor while standing in front of the opaque windows of the “black box” from which, he ingenuously explains, workers are secretly observed.

Anthony intercuts Steve’s schtick with a class on the body-cam given to Baltimore police officers. In it the instructor demonstrates how the device works and for what purposes. Chief among them is accountability, not only for the officers using it but for those whom they deal with. To illustrate this he shows body-cam footage (he asks Anthony to turn off the video) in which a suspect’s claims of police brutality are refuted by what is seen on the screen. “Cameras don’t take sides,” the instructor concludes. Perhaps not, but those handling the cameras and footage do, and as the voice-over narrator point outs (apparently in the interest of full disclosure, he is identified at the beginning of the film as an actor serving as a voice-over narrator) such video evidence tends not to “reproduce an event but produce a narrative.”

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Such employment of seeming technological and scientific objectivity to support narratives has a long history. In 1874, despite vaunted advances in photography, the efforts of teams of scientists to establish an exact measurement of Venus’s transit across the sun proved inconclusive. The philosopher Henri Bergson disputed the possibility of ever resolving the problem, writing that any attempt to take a true measurement was doomed to failure because it “did not reflect the true nature of Venus, but only the limits of human observation.”

The eye itself is a deceiver. While ophthalmological images of the optic nerve play on the screen, a text explains how the nerve itself cannot see. “At the exact spot where the world meets the eye we are blind,” the text reads. “We do not perceive this blind spot in our vision. The brain invents a world to fill the hole at the center of it.”

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This is a central theme which the film pursues through montage, collage, analogy, metaphor, ironic juxtaposition, archival oddities, and philosophical reflection. But one of its most powerful and revelatory sequences is observational.

The owner of an aerial surveillance company, who is white, meets with a Black community group to demonstrate how the company’s program would be of benefit to them because it reduced crime. Anthony films the meeting, which is lively and contentious. At one point an attendee accuses Anthony and his white film crew of being part of the company and accuses them of filming those at the meeting for nefarious purposes and without their permission. He threatens to sue and calls them “pimps.” The organizer of the meeting intervenes and tries to explain that the film crew and the surveillance company are different entities.

But are they different? Does acknowledging the subjectivity, manipulation, and uncertainties of a recording make it less so? Anthony analyzes the limitations of documenting what is real, but his eye, as he admits, has a blind spot too.

“All Light, Everywhere” opens June 11 at the Kendall Square Cinema. Go to www.landmarktheatres.com/boston/kendall-square-cinema.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.