ABSTRACT

Adele Horne’s documentary The Tailenders (2005) begins with an image of a flat, square piece of cardboard labeled “Cardtalk.” Two hands reach into the frame, unfold the cardboard to form a box equipped with a tiny record needle, place a phonograph record beneath the needle, and then use a pen inserted into a hole in the record to spin the disc (Figure 4.1). What emerges from the record is a man’s voice speaking in English and reciting a simple, didactic lesson that answers the question, “What is a Christian?” His voice is slightly distorted by the fact that the record is cranked by hand, but it is nonetheless legible. The Tailenders’ odd inaugural object sets up an enigma, one not so much resolved by the film as used as an entry point into complex issues of archivization, information dissemination and power. Over subsequent black-and-white archival images of people standing near similar handcranked phonographs, a woman’s voice, Horne’s, tells the story of Gospel Recordings, an evangelical missionary group founded in 1939 with the intention of recording Bible stories in every existing language and dialect in order to spread the same Christian message, translated but unchanged, across the world. The missionaries call their potential converts “tailenders,” because the missionaries believe that these people are the last on earth to learn about the Christian faith and therefore to be “saved.” The film then cuts to interviews with contemporary Gospel Recording missionaries explaining their project and showing off their archive, which, they boast, contains recordings of more languages than any other archive in the world. The Cardtalk record in the first shot turns out to be a fragment from this vast collection.