African Apocalypse

Most famously played by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, Joseph Conrad’s maniacal character in Heart of Darkness, known only as Kurtz, was an incarnation of the evil brought to Africa by white Europeans during their pillaging of the continent. Led by Nigerian-British poet and activist Femi Nylander, the title of director Rob Lemkin’s documentary African Apocalypse is a riff on Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 classic and doesn’t pull its punches (Black viewers should be aware it does contain some horrific photographic imagery) as it confronts the harsh reality of a history never given its rightful exposure.

If you were paying attention to the protests held against the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford you may recognise Femi’s name. He was one of the original Rhodes Must Fall campaigners and takes centre stage here travelling to Niger to follow the trail of destruction left behind by captain Paul Voulet, who was part of the invading French army in Niger in 1898. While Voulet has never explicitly been identified as the inspiration for Kurtz, there is more than enough evidence to cross-match the sociopathic behaviour that led to the brutalisation of thousands of Nigeriens, making him a more than suitable fit.

Using a combination of excerpts taken from official army documents, Voulet’s mission reports and readings from Conrad’s novel, further context is provided about the psychological decline of the captain as he eventually severed contact from his superiors, and seemingly his own senses. Femi provides his own narration to address Voulet’s actions and beliefs, the captain’s name spoken with the disdain it deserves.

Femi is told by his two guides that the kidnapping of tourists and expats – especially white people – is rife in Niger, with the threat of Boko Haram only a short distance away across the border, so their convey travels with an armed guard. When the young soldiers hear he is British Femi is told he may as well be white, and that internal conflict about identity is part of what drives the film’s narrative the further they travel across the country.

Soon after arriving in Niger Femi wonders why it feels strange to be somewhere where everyone is Black. He understands that even as Black person born within the white supremacist structures of the West he has still benefited from its dark past. It’s a deeply complex part of his psychology that cannot be easily unpacked – and perhaps even fully understood – by Femi himself, let alone anyone whose heritage isn’t tied to a colonial past. The inclusion of these moments of self-doubt, and that of his guides who ask why he is not being more emotive with his responses to the horrible stories being told by villagers, is certainly brave and worthy of praise.  

According to the UN Niger is the least developed country of the world and part of what African Apocalypse hopes to achieve is to trace the long-lasting impact of European imperialism. This is where Lemkin is least successful, only introducing feint through lines linking events of 100 years ago to the problems faced by Nigeriens today – and millions of other people across the continent. In truth this is more of a personal journey-cum-historical document – neither of which are lacking in effect – but it isn’t able to underscore the many ways Europe decimated the development of the countries under its rule (which continues to this day).

As Femi passes from one village to the next he hears that this is the first time Nigeriens in the region have been asked by outsiders about Voulet. Even though the events took place over 100 years ago they understand how it affects their lives today. And despite the horrific nature of the stories being told it should never be forgotten that this is a tiny part of the atrocities carried out by colonialists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. African Apocalypse is one of only a handful of films that recall a history preferably forgotten by the West, but if production companies are serious about changing their own patterns of behaviour, it should also be the first of many.

African Apocalypse is available to watch on BFI Player from October 30.

Steven Sheehan

Updated: Oct 30, 2020

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