The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of All Light, Everywhere.
When police capture footage with their body cameras, they are essentially engaging in filmmaking of a sort we’ve never seen before. In this film, you approach the issue from all sides, and even insert yourself into the story directly. Can you talk about that decision, and how you thought about the various meta elements of the project?
Theo Anthony: That idea of accounting for the act of observation in observing is something that I’ve always been drawn to, as a big science nerd! I’m still a science nerd; I love math and sciences. A lot of my inspiration comes from my experience in those fields. In terms of the “meta” nature of the film, I knew we were making a film about cameras, that we were going to be talking about cameras, and obviously I was making the film with a camera. So, yeah, there was really no separation, like, “here’s a meta moment.” There was no breaking the fourth wall, because there was no wall! We were just trying to describe the artifice from the start, and to do so without having any illusions about our own involvement. There’s clear acknowledgement throughout that we were bringing our own artifice and point of view to the screen, just as the body cameras do. I think that was our goal the whole time. But I will say that, you know, I think that there was a moment – a much “cleaner” version of this cut – where I was not as much of a presence in it. We had all of these really well choreographed scenes that we spent a lot time planning, and it moved very dream-like from scene to scene. And I think that, just sitting with it more and more, and just the nature of the subject matter (surveillance, policing, and etc.), obviously what’s happening in the news every single day, and in particular the murder of George Floyd last summer… it made us realize that all of these ideas we were talking about needed to be grounded in a very material, concrete way. That meant that I, personally, had to be in the film. Because having me in it was also implicating myself explicitly instead of just implicitly. It helped ground the film, and made it clear I wasn’t trying to remove myself from critique, which I think would have been very hypocritical, given what we’re talking about here with body cameras and surveillance. That was something that we just had to embrace, to really be true to the spirit of this film.
I think that these people really believe that they’re doing the right thing.
Access is crucial for any documentary, but for this film it was even more remarkable, given the vast range of people and types of environments you shot it. Can you discuss your approach and philosophy?
TA: Every section in the film, with the exception of the one community meeting scene, was preceded by months if not years of emailing back and forth, and really doing my research to see what else had been done, to see what other types of interviews they had granted, and just to always sort of pitch ourselves along the lines of what we knew they already felt comfortable doing. With Axon, for instance, you can go on YouTube and look at Steve [Tuttle’s] interviews and he has basically done everything he does in our film before – maybe not in the same sequence, but he has his whole performance, and he has his whole thing. We felt that his performance, in which he sort of channels this corporate identity, was the purest form of the argument for Axon’s cameras that we could present, and we really put a lot of faith in our audiences to receive that and critique it for themselves. There’s another style where you sort of try to trip him up, or back him into a corner… and that’s just not what we do, with anyone, regardless of whether or not I personally agree with them or not. From an even wider perspective than that, though, I think the thing to understand is that a lot of these surveillance companies, all these military-industrial companies that are retrofitted for the civilian market… the way that the pitch themselves is always about “transparency,” and that you’ll get a better understanding because you’ll be able to see these things, and once you see these things, you’ll be able to act on them, and hold these institutions accountable. And that’s great in theory but it never works in practice. In the end… what does “transparency” even mean? There’s a lot of great writing on this, Kate Crawford and Mike Ananny have this amazing piece that I always try to plug, called “Seeing without knowing: Limitations of the transparency ideal and its application to algorithmic accountability.” Kate has done some amazing work in the field of A.I. ethics, and things like that. So, yeah, with “transparency,” what they’re essentially always pitching is, “we think transparency is great,” which is true, but we always respond with, “well, we’d love you to be transparent about how this process of transparency is going.” At which point they usually say, “great,” and we’re in. Because I think they really believe it, you know? I mean, Steve wakes up every morning– I mean, he was a nice person to us. Which doesn’t excuse anything! But at the same time, he was perfectly nice to us. I think that these people really believe that they’re doing the right thing. So I think that when you approach someone with good faith, even if you don’t necessarily agree with what they’re doing, I think there’s a lot space to work with there. Or, if they deny our request to access – after we ask them to show off the transparency they’re supposedly engaging in – they’re really being flat-out hypocritical. You know, we filmed this in 2017. And that was the beginning of the Trump years. And I don’t think that a lot of the things we did then would necessarily work any more. I’ve spoken with a lot of journalist friends of mine who feel that, in the last four years alone, there’s been such a trend towards every corporation having their own PR company, their own in-house production company… and that the line between “sponsored content” and “journalism” has been obfuscated for a long time, and it’s only getting more so. If there ever was a line to begin with! I think that people have really wised-up to the old muckraking journalist in their midst.
There is a statement made in the film that police body cameras are only meant to show the officer’s perspective, and that showing anything outside of that one perspective would be problematic. There is no discussion about getting at the objective truth of a situation, which seems wrong somehow.
TA: Well, that’s very intentional– that’s supreme court-derived jurisprudence at work. To get in the weeds for a second, “use of force” policy has a very involved legal framework around it. What constitutes a “justifiable use of force” in the United States is determined by a standard known as “objectively reasonable,” which was established by a case, Graham v. Connor, in which a pair of police officers beat up a diabetic Black man who was having an episode in a bodega. The officers claimed that use of force was justified because they didn’t know he was having a diabetic episode at the time. So what the supreme court said was, well, these cops had no idea that this man was in medical danger; he was behaving erratically. So therefore they were justified in their use of force. That man lost that case against the police officers. And now that’s the law of the land. So when we talk about “objectively reasonable,” which basically means the use of 20/20 hindsight is not allowed, the way that these bodies cameras are designed is to never go beyond that “objectively reasonable” framework. You never want to show anything more than what the police officer could have known at the time. If you look at what local officials and politicians are telling you about these cameras, or what Steve is telling you about these cameras… the reality is a far cry from the notion of the “all-seeing eye of God” that this body camera supposedly represents, if you listen to them. It’s actually just a really, really crystalized enshrinement of the police officer’s incredibly limited perspective. But it’s not just due to Axon. It’s the entire court system that has deeply adopted the outcome of Graham v. Connor. I think there’s some really cool work right now to elevate the standard from “objectively reasonable” to “necessary and proportional.” This new standard says that, in order for a use of force to be justified, it can’t just be, “oh, we didn’t know at the time,” instead you have to ask the question, “was it actually necessary to break that person’s leg? Was that action proportional to the threat being posed to the officer?” And that’s not all that needs to happen, but stuff like that just seems so common sense. It’s a really uphill battle, but it’s starting to happen in different jurisdictions, which is definitely a welcome development.