Interview With Theo Anthony
Posted by <Theo Anthony>, <Tomi Faison> on 2022-02-15
This transcript is from an event on Feb 9th, 2022, aspart of our film screenings program within the Do Not Research discord.
TF Hey everyone, my name is Tomi Faison. I'm one of the coordinators at DNR and I'm here with Theo Anthony, the director of All Light Everywhere. This film hits home for me in a lot of ways: It’s an appropriately skeptical exploration of sensing and surveillance weaved through a historical meditation on filmmaking and of course partially takes place in the great city of Baltimore where I am right now.
Theo is a filmmaker now based in H*dson, but grew up in the Baltimore area. Other projects include Subject to Review which I think makes a really good companion piece to this and then of course Rat Film, which we watched and talked about a few months ago. Theo recently took his exploration of systems and structures to a whole new level as [haha] an Alder in H*dson NY. Welcome Theo, how's it going? How was the bowling tonight? What were your scores looking like?
TA Hey, bowling was good. I had an okay night. My strike ball, I was finding the pocket, but I couldn't couldn't stay ahead of the break and wasn't picking up my spares so overall it was an all right night. I had a 220 the first game which was nice but kind of all around that range. But any night bowling is a good night.
TF This is kind of personal out of the gate, but can I ask, are your parents still together?
TA uhh they are
TF Ahh okay, the joke I always make to my bowler friends is that all good bowlers have divorced parents because the divorced dads don't know what to do with the kids so they take them bowling. But even more impressive to bowler 220 and to have your parents have a happy marriage.
TA I think that's part of the branding that we have to push to change because I think bowling is actually like a really beautiful sport of solidarity. It's like the working man's golf. There’s that book “Bowling Alone” which sort of talks about the sort of the emergence of the individual and like neoliberal mindset. I think that whoever wrote that wasn't a bowler and doesn't understand how it's actually a real source of community… I could talk about that for two hours.
TF Once you've made the bowling doc, we can have a discussion of how bowling is reclaiming the proletariat public space in the form of leisure activity or whatever haha.
TA I am actually making a bowling film with a dear friend of mine, the filmmaker Sky Hopinka, it's my first co-directing project and we're really excited about it.
TF Woah, that’s great! I mean I was joking but now I’m looking forward to that. His work is excellent… Well we should get to the movie.
I was thinking we'd start with talking about the website [alllightexpanded.com]. The website is unique and I'd love to hear you talk about your thought process behind making public this research and how a research practice impacted the way you made the film in general?
TA I think for any project, or just anything in general, I'm always reading and gathering a lot of material and I'm always saving it and bookmarking for later. I feel like in my films I'm not ever saying anything new. I'm not putting forward any new argument or any new unearthed history or not even any particularly new insight, but instead finding all these connections across a really diverse set of sources and bringing them together in the filmic form. The film form does certain things really great. It works on an affective level really well, but I always feel like my films are poor translations of the things and the people that I'm inspired by. This website was an attempt to bridge that gap.
If you have a book, if you have an academic paper, you're always citing your sources to tie it in with these larger conversations. I think it’s a shame that documentaries so often exist in this bubble where room isn’t made for that larger context. So this was just our way of pointing outwards to all the different people and sources that inspired the film. One of our mantras while making it was that we're always pointing outwards not inwards. We didn't want to make a coffee table book celebrating how great of a film we had made, we just wanted to let people find all of these really inspiring texts and films and research material. It was a long process of creating a digital database to all of our notes, and working with a design studio to develop a front end for that datavase. We worked with the company A Lot of Moving Parts (Seth Thompson and Bhavik Singh), and I’m really proud of what we did. It was an amazing experience working with someone from an entirely different practice to visualize this old source material. It felt like making an entirely new project, which was refreshing after almost 6 years.
TF I think that's really interesting because with documentaries so often the aim is to actually take something really complicated and networked and find a way to make it totally self-contained. It's cool to hear you approaching it with the opposite intention in mind. The goal is to keep connecting dots until everything is covered in a map of red string. It makes sense, because like you described, the work is a series of connections. But it’s hard to do that and also be coherent.
TA Yeah, I think when people talk about documentaries so often they speak about it like it was a Wikipedia entry. They just rate that Wikipedia article and flatten it to what it's about and ignore the stylistic or aesthetic decisions that are made. That’s unique to documentary as an art form. When you look at a painting, when you look at anything else, people are analyzing the style and are able to pick apart the form from the content. But I feel like because documentary holds such a close indexical relationship with how the quote-unquote world looks, audiences very often don't analyze it as a work of art. As I said before, there's certain things that a film does really well. There are also certain things that a photograph does really well, there's certain things that text does really well, etc. There's obviously really deep histories to all those things and sometimes people come along and upend those traditions but I don't think a film should try to do all those things at once or else it’s gonna get flattened to what amounts to a visual podcast. It’s a recognition that a film isn’t going to do everything, nor should it.
TF That's funny that you used that term “visual podcast” last time we spoke and Dylan, another filmmaker in the server, and I both instantly were like “that's the term.” Very useful phrase. Continuing on this line of breaking conversation, watching this time I was struck by the first shot with the Axon CEO. The shot is the Axon CEO in this big elaborate elevator and you are blocking out where the CEO should stand. You enter the frame, reposition him and then we see the “staged” shot after. What was your thought process behind including that and particularly including that so early. It reads as a sort of tipping your hand so to speak. Or just generally what's it mean to sort of make yourself a part of this film and kind of reveal the artifice?
TA There were a lot of earlier cuts of this film. It’s ironic, you would think that a film as it progresses in the edit goes from a rough to a fine cut but with this film it felt like it went from a fine cut to a rougher and rougher cut. At first, I was watching films like World On A Wire and Stalker and I was really in this sort of 70s sci-fi vibe and wondering what would that look like as a documentary sort of traversing all these systems of the surveillance state. For a while, we had all these coordinated shots that would fluidly move and you never saw me. But I think it got to a point where we were really contemplating the subject matter and then that started to change. We were obviously making this film about body cameras and other surveillance tech where power perpetuates power by excluding itself from the frame and it felt like it would be hypocritical to not also include ourselves in the frame. Not necessarily in some sort of naval gazing exercise of self-reflexivity but to actually just include ourselves in the critique and also say, no this isn't appearing from nowhere, we're making a film and we're making these decisions just like other people with cameras are making decisions. So yeah, to answer the question, there were all these cuts where it cut right into Steve as that pneumatic door opens and he says come on in and it wasn't until near the final cut that we actually included the other takes. It was a very quick way of saying here I am, I'm making this, I'm staging this, don't confuse this as some sort of transparent window of what's actually happening.
TF I think it also does a pretty good job of also sort of permitting the audience to laugh at what are fundamentally very absurd, dark sequences with the kind of uncanny corporate video style. Picking up on something you touched on, could you say more about how your relationship to documenting things evolved as you were getting deeper and deeper into this?
TA Yeah, definitely. Start to finish, it took five and a half years. At the beginning there's that line where it says every film is an autobiography and I feel like the way that I look at this film is kind of like a documentation of my own growth. The person that started the film feels a lot different than the person that ended it. It was this iterative process of producing, reflecting on what we produced, and then changing the configuration of that production going forward. I think that it turned into an intensely personal process, which I wasn't expecting at first given the subject matter. Especially with some of the tougher decisions in the film, regarding the community meeting and the decision to take the students out at the end, these ended up being intensely personal and difficult decisions that took months and years. I'm glad that I went through that. I'm glad that I figured out where I stood on a lot of those issues of documentation. These are questions that I’m sure I’ll wrestle with in all my work, but I’m glad that I don’t have to go through this one instantiation of it again. I don't know if I'd ever do a project this long again because I feel like I'm always interested in new things and my perspective is changing. I don't necessarily want to be tied to this person from five years ago that started this project. I think 18 months to two years is a good timeline.
TF Since you brought it up, I do want to talk a little about the students at Frederick Douglas. If I'm gonna be totally candid, some people I’ve talked to, particularly people here in Baltimore, struggle with the epilogue. So I'm curious about a couple things. I understood the kids as maybe an example of sort of a different manifestation of these observing technologies, of these sensing technologies. Obviously your film itself is that as well, so I think I understand the impulse to tell that story. I'd love it if you could just speak a little bit to how you saw that element fitting in initially and then the decision to cut most of it, but keep a tiny chunk in.
TA I'll try to. It cuts to the heart of the film so in away maybe it’s the only question to ask. From the beginning we knew that we were telling this very particular story about film and photographic history, a history which centers violence. . But that’s not the only history. So we were constantly battling within ourselves, asking how do we make space for this one very particular violent thread and also all of the other histories which are generative and world building histories of photography and image making. That's not a recent or novel thing–you look at the lectures of Frederick Douglass, where in 1861, he’s already imagining this new art form as a productive space where Black people can generate futures that were not materially, politically, socially available at that point in history. Again, this is in 1861. So that's there from the very beginning, along with all the other well-trodden links we explore with military and death and colonialism, etc. .
To us, the students were always an acknowledgement that all these threads were already happening, all the time. That our chosen path was just as arbitrary as any other. The student thread was intended as a way to poke holes in our own totalizing narrative we had built. Not by us, the filmmakers, but from another perspective, one that was intentionally decentered from us. So what happened was, we spent six months with two incredible classes at Frederick Douglass High School in Northwest Baltimore. We sat with, we helped out, we taught, we acted in, we lent equipment, we helped produce and fund the projects that they were making. It was an incredibly beautiful, and at times, very difficult, collaborative experience. We also came out of it with a lot of great footage. What happened though, was when I started to incorporate that footage with all of the other violent threads, those kids came out looking like the targets of that violence. That’s not to deny the reality that to be young and Black in a city like Baltimore, blocks away from where Freddie Gray was killed, is to have a target on your back on all sides. But why would I be making a film that recreates those same dynamics? Especially when I was trying to deconstruct those dynamics in the first place? What was happening in that classroom was about so much more than the narrow scope of my film. Why would I try to reduce them to fit it? And even if the point is that are so much more than my own limited frame, those kids were under no obligation whatsoever to resist the frame that I was putting them in.
So, we took that part out. And a new problem arose. For a film that was so much about erasure, both inside and outside the frame, I was erasing those kids, that experience. It felt dishonest to take out the heart of our experience making the film, an experience that shaped our editing decisions on every other frame in the film. We went back and forth for two years–taking those sections out, putting them back in–and ultimately we decided that it was a tension that the film itself was under no obligation to solve. So the epilogue felt like this compromise where it acknowledged our own failure to accomodate all these different perspectives, while at same time providing a departure point, a line of flight. I totally get the criticism, we knew when we made that decision that some people were gonna hate it, but I just know in my heart it's what we had to do. It’s hard–what you don't see is all the time and energy that went into the relationships that we had, you don't see what ultimately came of those relationships. Where I’ve arrived is that I don't think that a film has to be an evidence generator for all the work that you’ve done. It is not a case for how good of a person you are. Do your work outside the frame, you are under no obligation to perform that work for anyone. Things happen in the latency of space that work their way into visible space in non-linear and unpredictable ways. To restrict that relationship to 1:1 representations restricts our space of possible outcomes. So I don’t know, that’s kind of where I’m at right now, but… fuck, it was a tough decision.
TF The intentions sort of remind me of what you do in Rat Film. Right towards the end we get this google map sequence where we have a sort of body-less protagonist who re-navigates the same limiting grids of the city but now sort of in a limitless way. The POV camera cuts through boundaries. I really appreciate the impassioned answer. Staying on a similar thread, and because you touched on representing the generative potential of technology which in some ways are actually very similar to a lot of the interests that we've been working through in this community. We've been investigating what it looks like to have, if not a techno-positive but at least a sort of non-technophobic, left-wing articulation of a political position. Some of that is explored through Bratton, some of that is through the quote-un-quote L/Acc canon. We’ve been skeptically, but seriously, looking at the potential of technology that may oppress people today, but could offer something emancipatory in the future. People’s Republic of Walmart comes to mind. I mean a really naive, simple twist on a lot of the content in your film could be the idea of imagining a world where these sort of tools of surveillance could be tools of sensing and service provision. So my question is, for you, after walking away from spending so much time with all of this content, how do you feel about technology now? Are you convinced that some technological forms have baked in, inherent implications? Versus technology as interfacing within power structures? Did you learn anything about how the two may or may not interplay?
TA Yeah, I mean, I’m what Josh calls a cringe reformist. I think that it's obviously really important just to know these deep histories and actually even on a surface level look at the literal language that’s being used. When you look at an advertisement from 2020 and see that it matches something from 1920 I think it's time to sort of take a pause and just think about what we're doing to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes again. I think that when it comes to technology, it's always been a failure of the left to critique it from a removed ideological position and then punt on all of the infrastructure development to the worst actors, thereby only reaffirming those critiques. It may earn you tenure, but it doesn't necessarily place us in a better position for living. So I think that I'm always like, yeah these things suck, but what else are we going to do? And also if we learned how to use it we could build some other stuff that incorporates all these problematics, while keeping an eye on how things can go wrong. Because I think it's just really the only choice that we have.
TF I mean it's like such a it's such a tricky line to draw because I think a really easy but incorrect read of this film, a simplified one, would be the camera came from the gun, the camera is violence. But it just begs this question: why'd you make the movie at all? Obviously I’m glad you did.
TA I think the simplest way of saying it is, we we spent this whole film sketching the outlines and nuances of this system and I think that we wanted to kind of pop it at the end and sort of show all these gaps that have existed all along, while also not containing those gaps to the previous hierarchy or definition. To embrace the incompleteness, embrace the ambiguity, the opacity, while showing that these were strategies of resistance all along.
TF In some ways it'd be a hell of a lot easier if you made this film a distinct narrative. It would be a lot easier and you'd have a lot less worries if you were to just be like, here's the thing I want to explain and here's how I'm gonna build my argument up around that. Do the visual podcast. But I think this film actually excels precisely because it competently refuses to do just that. Could you speak to your relationship to having or rejecting this notion of concrete argument? Or maybe narrative or story as you worked your way through?
TA We had a few baseline rules with the film. One of the main ones being that we would not have any images of explicit violence. I think when you hear that it's a film about body cameras, the images that come to mind are George Floyd, or any other number of police killings that we’re flooded with every day. I obviously think that these events are important to reckon with, but the images themselves are so traumatizing that as a viewer we don't necessarily always see the already-existing implicit argument in the images, or how that argument can perpetuate a cycle of violence. Very often the act of violence has occurred before the camera was even rolling Our thought was that by occluding the brightest light in the room, all these other shades of nuance would come into relief.
TF I'm going out on a limb here, but I think your film would have been a lot more commercially successful if you had leaned into that a little bit more. I'm wondering what that feels like?
TA There's a very specific market when you can't can't explain the film in a paragraph. It’s like there's some mathematical formula where the longer your synopsis is the less money you're gonna make. I think we knew that we were making a film that would not be accepted by everyone and we were very lucky to snake our way through the way we did. But we were always trying to resist the dominant story that turns it into a series of bad apples who are acting independently of each other, who are just these bad agents in an otherwise perfectly fine system. For us, the main characters are always the system itself. I feel like my films are like Systems Plays or something. I'm always just looking at how people bend themselves to the system. I imagine Steve as like a monk at the monastery of Axon, just sort of going through his rituals in service of a higher order. I hitch on to the rituals to get a better understanding of what that higher order might be.
TF So I’d like to change course just a little bit, I understand that since this film you've taken a slight career pivot, you’re now a city council member for the city of H*dson. I’m wondering if you could talk to us about that decision? Potentially speaking from the point of view of people in this server who are very interested in politics, tangible material politics, maybe haha some people in the chat would say cringe reformist politics, but work primarily in the arts.
TA In summer 2020 there was obviously a lot of stuff happening around police reform and I was in the midst of editing this film and approaching a final cut. It was really that summer that I started to edit myself back into the film more. I was thinking about this question, why am I putting so much pressure on a film to do everything? It's really tied in with the stuff I was saying with the website too. Why am I stuffing all this stuff into a film like when it could be complementary to all these other outputs? So there was a whole lot of discussion going around about body cameras at the time on a national scale, but also locally our police department was implementing a body camera program. It was a really cut and dry policy that was copy-pasted from Axon's own materials. We had spent like half a million dollars on it as a city already and I just wrote an email to my mayor saying, “Hey I know it's too late to take a second step on this but we should really consider having a stronger policy if we're gonna have these body cameras in place.” In short, he invited me to a police advisory and reconciliation committee, which in itself was extremely cringe reformist, and I was initially (and remain) very skeptical of it. It was seven months of discussion with community organizers, council members, and also members of the police force. In the end we were able to push through some reforms–I ended up just rewriting the use of force policy and the body camera policy for the police which got approved a few months ago. With a lot of this stuff you just sort of show up and whoever does the most work gets the most done. I had this backlog of research and materials on body cameras and policing and I tried to weaponize that information to put together a nice PDFthat made the case. So flash forward like six months and there was an opening on my city council, my friend who was our councilman was stepping down, and I was approached by the mayor and a few other people to step into the position. I accepted and ran unopposed and now I'm the the fourth ward Council Memberof H*dson, New York. So now that it's been two months of it I have a lot of thoughts about it. It's intense, it's really really intense. I was having a meeting with someone in local government this morning about parking and he had a dusty mug that said “liberal tears” on his desk. It was kind of this moment where I'm like, you know I'm not supposed to be here right? Like who the hell let me into this thing? It's a really wild situation, definitely feels like I shouldn't be here but I'm trying it out. It's a two-year term. It's kind of like a new system study, but for local government.
TF You started by talking about this, and now you’ve touched on it again, saying that it’s almost as if this feels like another step in your arts practice. Do you see it as intertwined or do you see this as a diversion for you?
TA I’m a big, big advocate that all practice comes from the same place and I think it's really important to find different outlets for your practice, because it's not always going to be going well in one. I started up woodworking and bowling and I know it's like we can laugh about it but if I was on video I'd say with a straight face that I believe bowling, woodworking, and filmmaking are all the same thing. I think that they come from the same place and it's kind of just a practice and sort of attuning yourself with these things that are bigger than yourself. I have felt really bad about myself, about myfilmmaking, about a lot of things, a lot of times in my life and I feel grateful now that I have these other outlets that I can turn to in those moments of feeling really bad. Not that I'm gonna turn to local government for fun but I think that I was feeling so much pressure to make an activist film. Like I'm talking about such serious topics and I need to address all this stuff with a straight face. So much pressure and expectation is put on our practice as artists.I think that obviously to a certain extent politics can be downstream of culture, but also, I'm sorry but a film isn't going to pass a DPW (Department of Public Works) budget. Maybe that's like a reduction, but so many of these really important conversations are happening in other places. I think that the culture war is being fought while there's a coup happening in real time at our local municipal level of people who are actually putting in the work. The people making these decisions that sound really bana, but have tremendous and immediate effects on our daily life, way more than macro trending narratives
TF Haha have you ever heard of the deep state?
TA Haha, yeah DPW is like the true deep state. I'm always saying if we actually want a revolution we'd have to start with DPW because whoever controls the water and sewer supply really controls the deck. But basically allowing my political work and putting that into a political sphere just like let me have fun making films again. It got so serious and the stakes felt so high, I just kind of left this film feeling really bad about making images. I think with that ending I'm in this next stage in my life.It feels nice just to have these different outlets for my interests. I can make a stupid film again and not feel like it should have been more serious because I'm showing up and doing the work and in other areas.
TF This is something that I think people listening, and myself, are constantly fighting. Particularly now, there is this strange neoliberal onus put onto us artists to do the thing that the state can no longer do, or politics can no longer successfully do. I’m curious if you have any advice for anyone listening and struggling with that pressure? Someone who maybe just wants to make something articulate and beautiful? Who cares about politics but doesn’t think a movie on its own is going to magically change the world?
TA I think that art can be this space of proposing experiments or possibilities and when we confine art too much to what the world looked like in the past we're really depriving ourselves of what it could look like in the future. Art should be a space of experimentation and so I'm really excited to let it be that again.
TF Well we’re starting to run out of time, thank you Theo, but do you have anything else you want to add?
TA Yeah, I was just thinking as I was talking that I think that the really interesting thing, and maybe I didn't mention this about the political stuff, is that I really went into local government with this sort of naive hope. I just got so frustrated with the divisions in mainstream discourse, or even online discourse, that it felt like it was more about labels than any sort of action. There’s so much abstract signaling, but things are so much more complicated and interesting once you actually look up close. I was in a government official’s office this morning talking about a loading zone, on a busy intersection, for a luxury hotel. That sounds so boring but as we were talking about it, it gets so complicated because it's a luxury hotel in a working class area. You're taking away a parking spot from someone. If you have to take it, you know you're taking away a metered parking spot, so you have to add one somewhere else or else maybe the whole historical preservation society is going to get upset. You can sort of debate this abstract political stuff all the time but where do you come down on a parking space? It doesn't follow any left right up down like quadrant that I've ever seen, and the configurations of different coalitions are way more fluid and way more like rife with potential than any of us give it credit for. I think it's really easy to assume things, to help people and where they stand and what they do, but when you're in the room having to put together a coalition with someone, you'd be surprised by the creative solutions you have to come up with. I was talking in the chat about this earlier, I'm a big Survivor fan and my Survivor brain just totally kicked in, assembling all the votes ahead of Council.
Message in Chat: What is the best season of survivor?
TA Best season of Survivor is season 28. That is prime Survivor canon., It's on Netflix, good to start wit followed by 20. Season 20 is Heroes versus Villains. But, this is a long-winded way of saying I've been really humbled by this city council experience already and I’m in so in over my head with this and I'm just like rambling about it because I haven't had anyone else to process with it, so I might as well do it with 50 people in a group chat. I'm just learning on the fly and I'm realizing that maybe everyone is in over their heads and no one actually knows what they're doing. It's a local government and it's amazing to see how these really vast systems are so ingrained while at the same time held together with scotch tape. So, I don’t know, that's my two month take away from life on city council.
TF Thank you so much Theo.
TA Yeah of course, this was a lot of fun.
TF Please, if you're looking for a test audience or once it's finished, we'd absolutely love to take a look at this bowling film.
TA We'll see what happens. It's mostly just bowling right now, we haven't quite gotten to the filming yet, but we'll see. Great talking to you, thank you so much, I talk about this community all the time. I think this is one of the coolest places on the internet and it's so so special what you all are building here. Speaking of tech optimism, I think this is the gold standard for that.