• Flash Competition


Miranda Pennell

A peculiar presence haunts the Crawford collection, at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology, and is spreading across London; like an echo of the curse of the Pharaohs, this spectral threat manifests itself through a mysterious malaise. Miranda Pennell’s research on the photographic archives of British rule over Egypt and Iraq in the early 20th century is like a detective investigation, searching for the clues that have been unwillingly left behind by the very same butchers who have been praised by History as civilizers. In these images of ruins illustrating the imperialist enterprise of knowledge and control, Pennell discovers the scars hidden by the archives; like so many unhealed wounds through which repressed History surges back to challenge the official narrative. Through these cracks, the victims of British (and European) colonisation rise from the dead to seek revenge; forever invisible, they manifest themselves through the sound of 1950’s and 1960’s horror films. By mixing the essay form with genre films, Pennell creates a horror story that is terribly real; the horrors of the past and of our present merge and crack the seemingly smooth surface of History to expose yesterday’s and today’s hidden violence. The malaise that is consuming our present is the curse of colonisation. The film forces us to stare into the darkness of History and to hold the gaze it reflects back.

Margot Mecca

This film is part of a larger project on colonial photographic archives, can you tell us more about your research and its origin?

I first explored a story that touched on my own family history and its relationship to the history of British colonialism (in Why Colonel Bunny was Killed, 2010). I was struck by the way images, language and preoccupations in a memoir from 1909 precisely mirrored those of the so-called ‘War on Terror’. I started working with archival photographs by necessity, but became fascinated by the potential of film as a medium for investigating photographs. I love the way film can compel the viewer to dwell on a photo, or part of a photo, for an extended period of time and thereby to hone in on telling details or to question how the image has been constructed. My most recent projects focused on the entwined histories of bombing and aerial photography, and here I started using conventions from genre-fiction as a way into talking about histories that appear difficult or disturbing.

In a sort of investigative play, you look for the clues in the archive that hint to the violence that the images recorded (and hid); how was the process of working with these images and with the institution behind them? 

I realised that the aerial photographs of archaeological sites (in Iraq in the 1920’s) are haunted by what they don’t show. The same pilots who were surveying and photographing, were also dropping bombs on villages. I set about looking for clues or signs within the images that could point to the off-screen violence. Some of the aerial landscapes looked like close ups of a giant swollen body, with networks of rivers as veins, and mountain ridges as flesh wounds, burns or scars.  I thought at first it would be easy to suggest the truth which the photos concealed. But the metaphoric approach felt like obfuscation. Eventually I decided I needed to find even just one image of actual bombing or its aftermath – that this would stand in for, and make concrete, all the other bombings. Interestingly, even this image (which I found in a book, credited to a museum) didn’t convey the reality. In the end it was the handwritten captions that were most disturbing.  

I incorporated the archivist from both institutions as characters in the film. Partly because it felt important to locate the photographs as captive within particular institutions, but also because to me the archivists are powerful gatekeepers who guard the halls of official memory.

The film echoes the pandemic situation in a troubling and original way, was the sanitary situation the drive to explore the imaginary of horror films related to the Orient? If not, which was the starting point for this unexpected association?

The second lockdown, in particular, accentuated feelings of isolation and anxiety that I sometimes feel working on my own over long periods of time, looking at the same archive images over and over again. Since I wasn’t allowed to visit the archive, I reconstructed the archive at home. I knew my investigator-narrator-self would be haunted by this research into photographs associated with violence and that the images would live inside me, changing me as I worked, and that this would be a way to tell the story. 

But it was the inclusion of amazing aerial images of pyramids within the collection that allowed me to introduce a history of mummy’s curse narratives. Exploring these Orientalist myths helped tie several different layers of haunting together. That of the villagers and their descendents, terrorised by bombs from British aeroplanes, the bad-conscience of British colonisers who fear ‘native’ uprising and revenge, the shadow cast by more recent horrors of war, and lastly, the filmmaker’s experience of anxiety.

You were able to create a political essay film which is, at the same time, an unsettling horror film. I would like to know how you worked with the codes of genre cinema and, specifically, what was your approach to sound (the soundscape and the music).

I captured fragments of music mainly from early mummy’s curse or ghoul films. The snatches of musical suspense, threat or dramatic climax, transformed the apparent dullness of archival research into a world of mystery, other-wordliness, and drama.  This other realm does actually reflect my inner experience of looking closely into images of a traumatic past, searching for clues, searching for meaning, so I’d like to claim this as a documentary method.

Sometimes bits of dialogue, exclamations, or screams were embedded in the music track. It occurred to me that I could insert exclamations or phrases from my own narrative into these horror soundtracks, which is what I do towards the end of the film.

Other aspects of the soundtrack combine naturalistic sound recordings and atmos tracks. These atmospheres signal a shift between temporal and spatial worlds – that of the filmmaker’s room in 2023, then, say, that of a street in Mosul photographed in 1923. The audio introduces the idea that the outside world is bleeding into the researcher-filmmaker-narrator’s room, and that the fabric of her world may be unstable and liable to break open.

Another central feature of the sound of the film is the voice over. We go through this horror story guided by your voice, which balances in a subtle way the register of first-person narration, the thesis of the essay and the storytelling of the scary tale. Could you tell us more about how you crafted the text but also the tone and pace of the voice.

I use my encounter with images as a starting point for writing a voice. In general I selectively dramatise my different experiences of entering an archive or of looking into an image of the past, for another viewer. In this case, I needed to convey the ways in which these beautiful landscapes are scenes of trauma. Yet this is not my trauma. So, if the narrator is haunted by photographs, her haunting should not obscure the actual horror that haunts survivors of colonial wars. This has been the challenge, to position myself in relation to the people who appear only as tiny dots in the pictures, about whom I know nothing. 

I hope that playfulness, irony and humour have kept this potentially sombre voice lively and engaging.   Borrowing from retro-horror helped me convey a disturbing subject by drawing on aesthetics associated with worlds of fantasy and cinematic pleasure.  The familiarity of genre codes and clichés, and the inappropriateness of the juxtaposition, perhaps frees-up how we hear the voice in this film.

The perturbing aspect of the film not only lies in the violence of the past, but also in the manifestations of this same violence today; this becomes particularly striking in the last part, when the comments on the archive’s webpage question the oblivion and the perpetuation of the domination. How did you work on these elements?

I do feel that these histories are only meaningful to the extent that they disturb the present. The unanswered questions posted by Iraqi and Kurdish visitors to the museum website are voices that speak back to the images, to the archivists, to me – alongside the voices of the dead.  I simply amplified them. The visual leap between the black-and-white world inside the photos from 1924, and that of the website comments’ box, in colour, registers a sort of temporal jolt that I hope wakes up the ‘now’ from the sleepiness of sepia-tinted history. 

Interview by Margot Mecca

  • Flash Competition

Technical sheet

United Kingdom / 2023 / 33’

Rights holder
Sophia Musa