Award-winning short documentary film that complicates any simple reading of a collection of images from the archives of colonial anthropologist N. W. Thomas

“Faces|Voices” is our first short documentary film collaboration with anthropologist Paul Basu that was commissioned as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project and funded by the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council.

The project was re-engaging with a remarkable ethnographic archive assembled by the colonial anthropologist, N. W. Thomas, in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915. The project involved bringing this archive back to the communities it was gathered from and inviting contemporary West African artists and local voices to respond to it.

This film was an initial experiment that focused on some of the photography in the archive and involved a group of invited participants from the West African community in London to reflect upon some of the portraits and characters captured in these images. The aim was to listen and to record their reactions and comments more generally on the significance of these archival images today.

By adding their voices to the mute photographs, we found that the same portrait might invite quite different ‘readings’ from different people. Where one saw coercion, another might detect boredom. The crushing experience of colonialism may be found in one subject’s expression; optimism and resilience in another’s. Perhaps most surprising is the sympathetic view – even identification with – the face of the Government Anthropologist himself.

The film complicates any simple reading of the colonial archive. Even ‘physical type’ photographs, intended to identify and classify people into different racial or tribal categories, and which seemingly epitomize the violence of colonial ideologies, become ambiguous on closer inspection.

The film is a collaboration between The Light Surgeons and the [Re:]Entanglements project, led by Professor Paul Basu, now based at the Pitt Rivers Museum and School of Anthropology at the University of Oxford. It as originally made as a pilot for a video installation for the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition planned for the Brunei Gallery in London in 2020, but this was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

More background on the film’s making can be found here and deeper information on the archive and research connected to this film can be found on the [Re]Entanglements website here.

In 2019 the film won the  Best Research Film Award award at the AHRC Research in Film Awards 2019 at the British Film Institute in London.


Direction:Christopher Thomas Allen & Paul Basu
Interviewees:Ebony Francis, Robert Kelechi Isiodu, Kofi Mawuli Klu, Yvonne Mbanefo
Esther Stanford-Xose
Camera: Christopher Thomas Allen
Production Asssistance:Pierre Bouvier Patron & George Agbo
Editor: Christopher Thomas Allen
Sound Design:Tim Cowie

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