This is a feature documentary, a story about culture, colonialism, and the power of photographs told by a community in West Africa.

This documentary was made collaboratively with the Umudioka community by artist and filmmaker Christopher Thomas Allen, and anthropologist Paul Basu and was recorded in 2020 in Anambra State, Nigeria.

In 1911, the British government anthropologist Northcote Thomas made a study of the Igbo-speaking people of Nigeria. Among the thousands of photographs he took are many portraits of men whose faces are covered with scarification marks known as ‘Ichi’. At first sight, these images of deeply scarred faces seem to confirm colonial-era imaginaries of African customary practices.

The film documents the reaction to the reintroduction of these 110-year-old photographs to the Umudioka community in Neni, charting the cultural revival of these customs as the history of ichi is retold and re-enacted.

The Umudioka people are the historical custodians of ichi. In this creative documentary, filled with color, dance, masquerade, and song, the descendants of those photographed tell the story of their ancestors and their profession as traditional ‘tattooers’.

In the film, the few surviving men who bear the scarification marks recall their childhood experiences having their faces cut and forever changed. ‘Today’, one of them remarks, ‘people would no longer survive it’. Spirited despite their advanced years, they talk with a mixture of pride and regret at the loss of their traditional culture.

‘Death does not take stories’, one elder explains. Rather than marks of tribalism, ichi was a sign of nobility and it protected people from being sold into slavery. Ichi cutting was brought to an end in the 1930s by missionaries who wanted to stamp out what they regarded as pagan customs.

Beyond the particular story of Ichi and Umudioka, the film explores the ambivalence of colonial legacies and offers a profound reflection on continuity and change in West Africa.


This film came out of the research and fieldwork for the [Re]Entanglements project, which also included several other short films co-directed and produced by The Light Surgeons. These films formed part of the exhibition [Re:]Entanglements: Colonial Collections in Decolonial Times at the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, Cambridge which ran between June 2021 until 20 April 2022.

[Re]Entanglements was funded by the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council and led by Professor Paul Basu, then at SOAS but now based at the Pitt Rivers Museum and School of Anthropology at the University of Oxford. The project involves a growing number of partnerships in the UK, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and beyond.

This film is the result of a collaboration between The Light Surgeons, the [Re:]Entanglements project, the Eyisi Ebuluo Foundation, and the people of Umudioka, Neni, Nigeria.

Archive photographs in the film by Northcote W. Thomas are reproduced courtesy of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

film production Credits:

Co-Directors:Christopher Thomas Allen & Paul Basu
Executive Producer:Chiedozie Udeze
Co-Producers:Christopher Thomas Allen & Paul Basu
Camera: Christopher Thomas Allen, Femi Amogunla
Chikaogwu Kanu & George Emeka Agbo
Editing:Christopher Thomas Allen & Paul Basu
Researchers:George Emeka Agbo & Glory Chika-Kanu
Assistant Editor:Ida Lundø Madsen
Sound Design:Tim Cowie

film Funded by:

Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC)

Eyisi Ebuluo Foundation 

Screenings & awards:

Abuja International Film Festival, Nigeria, 2023
Winner of “Outstanding Documentary Film” award

Society of Visual Anthropology Film & Media Festival, Toronto, 2023

Cine Paris Film Festival, Paris, 2024

Related Projects: