Arts & Culture

Theo Anthony’s Life is as Curious, Open-Minded, and Unpredictable as His Films

Antony's first two feature films—'Rat Film' and 'All Light, Everywhere,' both set in Baltimore—have a cult following and have been critically revered.
The filmmaker Theo Anthony at his woodshop and studio in the Catskills, New York. —Photography by Jesse Dittmar

Filmmaker Theo Anthony hates the idea that his documentaries should “dig deep.” It’s an assumption that is made about his work—and the work of lots of nonfiction filmmakers, for that matter. But the metaphor bugs him.

“It kind of maps onto the language of oil extraction,” he says. ”That you gotta drill beneath the surface, you gotta dig deeper, you gotta really frack your subject to find a visible truth.”

Instead, he likes his films to be open-minded, curious, to cast a wide net. “What I try to do is understand the system or the process,” he explains. “Not necessarily looking at any one thing and squeezing it as tight as possible, but seeing how that thing interacts with other things. I try to understand the context.”

In short, Anthony has an endless fascination with the world and how it works. This fascination has served him well: His first two feature-length films, Rat Film and All Light, Everywhere—freewheeling, intellectual, and experimental documentaries, both set in Baltimore—have a cult following and have been critically revered. (The New Yorker film critic Richard Brody told me his films have “empathetic curiosity…bold imagination, and cinematic X-ray vision.”)

But Anthony says that filmmaking, which he loves, is not necessarily his primary passion. “I just think it’s the best way for me to learn more about the world,” he says with a shrug. “That’s at the root of it. [Filmmaking] has been a means to an end.”

Anthony, who is angular and handsome, with closely cropped hair and a quiet intensity behind his eyes, is speaking to me via Zoom from his studio/woodshop in the Catskills, about 10 minutes from Hudson, New York, where he currently lives with this fiancée, the filmmaker Zia Anger. (He maintains close ties to Baltimore and says he will always consider it home.) Woodworking is a relatively new passion of his.

“Whatever Theo gets into, he really gets into,” explains Riel Roch-Decter, one half of the team at the motion picture studio Memory that produces Anthony’s work.

Anthony describes how his woodworking passion evolved. “Over the first summer of the pandemic I built a fence for our yard and I felt, like, this sense of accomplishment that I honestly haven’t felt in any other art form or practice in such a long time,” he says. “Because I was outside, I was talking to my neighbors more, and all of a sudden, I had this fence and I realized it would be better if my neighbors came inside this fence and hung out, but we needed a table, so I built this table. We also needed chairs around the table, so I started building these chairs and these benches. And I just got like really obsessed with woodworking, but also the way in which it was so entwined with our lives. I was building this environment and also having my neighbors over for dinner. It became this community practice as well as a creative practice.”

That’s the way Anthony’s “builds” his films, too. One idea grows out of another—a process of evolution and openness and discovery. His life has had a similarly searching quality. He’s very self-conscious about being “the man behind the camera”—and the artificial power that affords him. He thinks a lot about power structures, and his own role in them. Sometimes he finds it exhausting. Which is why the woodworking is so necessary. And which is why he has recently explored yet another career path. But we’ll leave that plot twist for later.

Theo Anthony was born in 1989in Washington, D.C., and raised in Annapolis. His mom, Iris Krasnow, was a journalist at UPI news service and a professor at American University. His dad, Charles Anthony, is an architect. As a kid, Anthony was very into math and physics and astronomy. “I was a big science nerd,” he admits. But he also liked reading novels (Kurt Vonnegut and Jack Kerouac were early favorites) and making and viewing art. While he loved living on the water in Annapolis and attending the progressive The Key School, he was also drawn to Baltimore, to its music scene and vibrant pockets of creativity, in particular Whartscape, the underground arts fest co-founded by Dan Deacon.




“Artistically speaking, creatively speaking, I was drawn to that sort of collective art making and community making in the midst of a city that was as complex and historical as Baltimore,” he says.

He was also learning how to make films—sort of. His friend Ben had tons of video equipment and they would shoot their buddies riding around on skateboards in Annapolis, getting down low to the ground, following them on longboards, just for fun. Anthony knew about photography and image making, but editing was a whole other story. When he attended Oberlin College, where he double-majored in creative writing and cinema studies, he realized that he wanted to make movies himself, but almost had to start from scratch. He downloaded tutorials from YouTube.

After graduating in 2012, he moved to Baltimore, where he lived first in Station North, and later in Waverly. When his New York-based girlfriend got an assignment to travel to Africa with the magazine/broadcasting company VICE, they pitched a series idea about covering the war-torn region so they could live there together.

“We kind of oversold our qualifications. I was extremely naïve,” he says. The editors at VICE bit and sent the couple to Africa. It was like being thrown into the deep end of a pool.

“I have a lot of complicated feelings about that project,” he admits. “At the end of the day, they sent me and my partner to the Congo with no experience to an active conflict zone to cover a war which I don’t think we were suited to cover.”

It was a formative time, to say the least. Anthony calls it his version of film school. He soaked up everything he could from the more experienced journalists he was working alongside, like a “barnacle.” But he also began to question his role there, his part in some industrial complex of journalists who would drop in on a country and claim to understand it in any sort of meaningful way.

“I’m still learning lessons from that experience, and so much of my work now—sort of looking at how images work and how they circulate and how they uphold certain power structures—comes out of my time there,” he says.

Even today, he’s reluctant to focus on the danger of that experience. “Something I’m very conscious of is, I don’t want to glorify or make my experience in the Congo seem more dangerous or harrowing than it actually was,” he says. “Being there, you realize that people are just living extremely normal lives. Like, yeah, there were dangerous situations. But I’m always cautious about amplifying that one perspective.”

Shortly after returning from the Congo, around 2014, he and the girlfriend broke up. Anthony was back in Baltimore, now working at Woodberry Kitchen, bussing tables. He was still making short films and videos on the side. But he didn’t have a clear career path. Then a short film of his got accepted to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). He quit his job at Woodberry and decided to focus all his energy on film.

“I remember saying, ‘I have to take this chance.’ I was in a fortunate enough position to be able to do that,” he says. “I could always go back to bussing tables. I took the leap into being a full-time filmmaker.”

The risk paid off. At TIFF, and other film festivals, he started making connections that continue to be valuable to this day.

But it wasn’t until he returned to Baltimore that the seeds of his first feature film took root.

If Anthony’s experience in the Congo was one of the most formative of his life, you could say he had an equal and opposite experience back home during the Freddie Gray Uprising in 2015.

“I had traveled all over the world telling other people’s stories, and for the first time, during the Uprising, I saw the whole world coming to my backyard to tell the story of Baltimore,” he explains. “When the media came and occupied Baltimore after the Uprising, I couldn’t criticize them because they were a mirror of me.”

Like those journalists in the Congo, the swarming media were only focusing on Baltimore’s most sensational, least savory aspects. The experience also gave Anthony some perspective on how little he knew about his own city. “I felt like, if I’m going to live here, I should really know more about the place where I live.”

At first, the idea for Rat Film didn’t seem to naturally overlap with the thoughts that were swirling in his head about Baltimore and segregation and exploitation. It had simply come to him one day when he saw a rat crawling out of a trash can in his yard. “I took out my iPhone and filmed that rat in the trashcan. It’s literally how the film starts,” he says.

Then he found out about the Rat Rubout Team, which seemed cool, “like the Ghostbusters, for rats.” And then, because he was checking out the Rat Rubout Team, he found out that rat poison was literally invented in Baltimore. These are the kinds of serendipitous connections that Anthony stumbles upon. But then again, maybe they’re not so serendipitous, maybe you just have to look. And, of course, you can’t talk about rats in Baltimore without talking about poverty. Anthony was reading two books at the time, Dawn Biehler’s Pests in the City and Antero Pietila’s Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City. He found the books strangely connected.

“Having these two ongoing inquiries [in my head] about pest control and racist housing policies that were engineered in Baltimore, I realized it was the same question,” he says. “It just was this organic evolution. It was about finding these parallel lines of inquiry until they’re not parallel anymore. Until they’re the same thread.”

The resulting film, Rat Film, is about rats, for sure. But it’s also about all those other things—poverty, racial segregation, and the endless resilience of the people in Baltimore. It has a probing score by none other than Dan Deacon.

What had started as admiration for the eclectic local music maker turned into a friendship and, ultimately, a collaboration between like minds. “Dan is also interested in process, and is a nonlinear thinker like me,” Anthony says. “Dan makes music by setting up all these initial conditions and letting the chaos unfold and finding patterns in that chaos. So there’s a lot of resonance between our approaches.”

Deacon has scored both of Anthony’s films, as well as Subject to Review, the ESPN 30 For 30 documentary Anthony made in 2019 about the tennis instant replay cam, Hawk-Eye.

Deacon says he loves the open-ended nature of Anthony’s process. “We have this nothing-is-precious approach,” Deacon says. “Everything is malleable, or can end up on the [cutting room] floor…We’re both always down to see what else is available. Why don’t we try this? Or this? I think that’s the most exciting part about working with Theo, that we don’t necessarily know what the outcome’s going to be. It puts us in this great and weird space of: Everything is amazing and everything is dust.”

Anthony sent a working version of Rat Film to two producers from Memory studio he had met at the Rotterdam Film Festival a few months earlier, Riel Roch-Decter and Sebastian Pardo. They were blown away by it.

“It was exactly the kind of filmmaking we wanted to be involved in,” says Pardo. “It was fresh, contemporary, formally adventurous, thoughtful, funny—it was new.”

“It was the freshest, most innovative work we had ever seen, and we continue to feel that way about everything Theo brings to us,” adds Roch-Decter.

They have gone on to produce both of Anthony’s feature films and are eager to produce whatever he brings to them next. But they might have to wait a bit.

Okay, so here comes the plot twist. Anthony’s second film, All Light, Everywhere, deals with bodycams and spycams and the myth of objective video footage. Anthony was given extraordinary access to both Baltimore Police Department training sessions and the Axon company headquarters where bodycams (and tasers!) are made. It’s a perfect film for Anthony, combining his endless fascination with the people behind video cameras, including himself, with an exploration of systemic racism and oppression.

While working on that film, he learned so much about bodycams, he felt he wanted to lend his expertise to the local Hudson government. “So, with that in mind, our mayor in Hudson put together a police accountability advisory committee, and for seven months I was on this advisory committee, meeting with other organizers, the mayor, the mayor’s aides, and some members of the police force really kind of overhauling [the city’s] use-of-force policy and their body camera policy,” he says.

He found that he liked shaping public policy. So much so that he decided to run for office. He ran unopposed.

“You’re looking at the next fourth ward alderman of Hudson, New York,” he says with a slightly sheepish grin.

No, he’s not exchanging film cameras for lecterns—not entirely at least. He’s simply excited to put his activist energy toward something concrete. And he believes it will free him up as a filmmaker. “It will allow me to be more exploratory or freewheeling in my art practice again,” he says. “I feel like I’ve become so narrowed in on these serious political questions that making images is almost not fun for me anymore. I need to love it again.”

The alderman seat is a two-year term. But it won’t stop him from exploring and researching new ideas. That’s just who he is.

“Filmmaking is an arbitrary way to get at the things that interest me. It’s just one way of going up the mountain,” he says. “The woodworking. The politics. They all just feel like different sides of the same thing.”