Five monologues performed by West African storytellers bring new narrative to a series of characters found in the photographs of a colonial archive

This film is directed by Christopher Thomas Allen and anthropologist Paul Basu and draws on decolonial thought regarding presenting silenced voices within colonial archives, and the ideas of ‘speculative histories’ . Part of a wider project to re-engage with the remarkable ethnographic archive assembled by the colonial anthropologist, N. W. Thomas, in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915 called [Re]Entanglements.

The film is the result of a collaboration between storytellers of African heritage who together ‘give voice’ to some of the silenced subjects in the photographs of this colonial anthropologist’s gaze. These storytellers were asked to imagine the stories other individuals photographed by Thomas might have voiced had they been recorded. Five short monologues were developed collaboratively with the storytellers based on archival research. The final script was edited by Paul Basu and the Sierra Leonean storyteller Usifu Jalloh, with input from other storytellers with Sierra Leonean or Nigerian heritage.

The monologues were filmed in portrait aspect ratio to reflect the framing of the physical type portraits. Between each of the storytellers’ performances, we intercut and morphed between more of the archival photographs to communicate a sense that these were just five from among many hundreds of untold stories and that each person photographed had their own story to tell.

In these transition sequences, we created a collection of surreal animations that morphed between the images. These transitions were created by training an AI model on 600 of these images to then be able to create a “Style GAN” animation using machine learning. These “latent walks” through the archive explored the idea of the “colonial gaze”, attempting to illustrate the way these pictures could be seen to homogenize and profile their subjects and reduce the cultural meaning of their subjects. The film’s soundtrack which was beautifully crafted by Tim Cowie was created from material from the wax cylinder recordings made during the anthropological surveys at the same time as the photographs.

This film was exhibited as an installation piece in the exhibition [Re:]Entanglements: Colonial Collections in Decolonial Times which ran between June 2021 to April 2022 at the Museum Of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. The film and exhibition are part of the Museum Affordances project, funded by the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and led by Professor Paul Basu, now based at the Pitt Rivers Museum and School of Anthropology at the University of Oxford.

More background on the research and production process that went into making this film can be found here.


Direction:Christopher Thomas Allen & Paul Basu
Storytellers:Olusola Adebiyi, Nadia Maddy, Anni Domingo, Usifu Jalloh, John Osagbo
Camera: Alex Estrella @ Exposure Films
Editing & Animation:Christopher Thomas Allen
Sound Design:Tim Cowie

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