Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu May 13, 2021 10:16 pm 
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("A far-ranging look at the biases in how we see things, focusing on the use of police body cameras")

Anthony began his career as a filmmaker with Chop My Money (2014), a 13-minute film that was a day in the life of three street kids in the Eastern Congo. Next came Rat Film (2016), 82 minutes, a documentary that uses a study of the rat and its habitations in walls, fences and alleys to explore the history of Baltimore. He did a short documentary not long ago about sports record photography, the 37-minute 2019 Subject to Review.

Here, in New Directors/New Films' 2021 Closing Film, Anthony moves on to meatier matter, still taking off from recorded images and considering, as the blurb for Subject to Review said, "how the technology exposes deeper questions of spectacle, justice, and imperfect human knowledge." Anthony's researches took him to Arizona as well as his native Baltimore.

Axon, formerly TASER International in Scottsdale, provides a main focus. This booming business, proudly shown off by the company boss, Steve Tuttle, in shirtsleeves, now produces a panoply of devices, starting off with the Taser electroshock stun gun weapon and moving on (rebranding itself to do so) to the body camera - both used by police. That the company started off with Taser weapons and moved on to police body cameras is telling in itself; the owner sees these as two sides of the same function, the Taser to disable citizens/offenders "harmlessly" (but they have been known to result in death), the body camera to protect the police from charges of abuse. It's all computerized, tied in with a high tech system, and activated when the cops pull out their weapon.

Anthony also had access to the Baltimore police department where the Axon body camera was being explained to some police, and to a community meeting where Ross McNutt, President and CEO of Persistent Surveillance Systems, is trying to sell a group of Baltimore citizens of color on the advantages of another aerial surveillance camera system, strenuously objected to by some, particularly a citizen originally from Haiti. Eventually the system was assumed by the City of Baltimore, whose crime problems have been well known.

Underlying these specific highlights, and a neuroscience focus group wearing far-fetched looking tracking devices to analyze their visual responses, there are narrations and music linking them together under general themes of: the camera as an all-seeing eye that is flawed, and earlier surveillance systems; carrier pigeons with cameras on them used by the Germans in WWI; early systems of recording data (photos and measurements) on "criminals" and things like facial types and "pictorial statistics." These narratives and images, accompanied by droning music, are attractive and may be thought-provoking. Basic flaws in the historic "criminal composite" system are pointed out and the fact that it never led to apprehension of any criminals. A wealth of archival imagery, old photos, drawings, diagrams, and sketches make this section attractive and reflect Anthony's extensive related research into the subject matter his film broadly broaches.

It probably wouldn't be enough just to focus on the Axon body cameras - which of course are linked to whole computer systems to detect, record, and analyze. How all these hypertrophied and outsourced to private industry systems are growing by the day is troubling indeed. But the other information and images and the narration and Dan Deacon's musical score are all part of the package. This is entertainment, after all. Anthony's team makes the end result both entrancing and disturbing. "From what picture does the future dream?" Whatever that means.

What somebody said in Baltimore is, turn the camera around: that's what the people want. They want the Big Brother overhead lens on the cops, not the citizens.

What astonished me is that it's an essential part of the police body cam system that cops can choose to turn it on or off. It apparently only records permanently when they choose. Before we get there, moreover, it's already designed to show only what the cops see, so in court, the body camera information won't show when the cop saw something that wasn't there or missed things that were there. In all the Axon devices, the scale is weighted in favor of the police.

A whole segment of black filmmaking students at Frederick Douglas High School in Baltimore working on a related project is sampled toward the end, but it's explained that it was decided to cut most of it out. This somehow isn't so bad, because it's part of Anthony showing the complexity of his process and its openendedness. (The students made their own film.)

This is, then, another version of an experimental doc (like, also in ND/NF 2021, Fern Silva's Rock Bottom Riser) that is interestingly made to bring us into the filmmaker's thought process so it's both beautiful and stimulating to watch. It is food for thought, a starting point, perhaps, left with pieces we have to put together for ourselves. While some citizen reviewers found it "pretentious at times" or felt it "tries too hard to be deep," its evident energy and invention is one obvious reason why the ND/NF organizers honored it by selection as their Closing Night Film. It comes out with all barrels blazing. It shows off a bit without ceasing to be serious and informative. A documentary that was less "experimental," that focused a little more clearly on one central issue, as Alex Gibney would have done, might also have wound up not being as much fun. But you have to be open minded to enjoy and be stimulated by this kind of film.

For fuller details of the multiple threads woven into this complex film see Sheri Linden's review in Hollywood Reporter.

All Light, Everywhere, 115 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 31, 2021 (special jury prize in nonfiction experimentation), showed at Copenhagen's CPH DOX Apr. 24; Toronto's Hot Docs Apr. 29; at Jeonju (virtual) Apr. 29; in Columbia, MI's True/False May 7. It was screened at home May 13 for this review as part of New Directors/New Films (Apr. 28-May 8, 2021 NYC and virtual).

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