An ill-forgotten 19th-century tale of brutal colonialism, unearthed with frightening parallels to today’s world
Sometimes a piece of work is created during a certain moment in time, when the stars align and it’s creation becomes all the more profound. Femi Nylander’s documentary, unearthing a shocking story of colonialism in Niger during the late 1800’s, is just that; all the more profound when forged in the climate of 2020.
In essence this is a young man’s epic journey across Africa in search of a colonial killer. It is an urgent and timely non-fiction retelling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, published in 1899.
Armed with a copy of Conrad’s classic novel, the British-Nigerian Oxford University student goes in search of the meaning and legacy of colonial horror in West Africa. He unravels the little known story of a French army captain, Paul Voulet, who descended into unspeakable barbarity in the conquest of Niger at the very moment Conrad wrote his book.
Nylander stands as a perfect anchor for this work, possessing a background in activism as part of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. His simplistic yet succinct narration is compelling from the opening shot, yet he remains remarkably unmoved on the outside, almost clinical in his learnings throughout the journey. Perhaps his emotionless front is telling of modern society’s ability to purge us of consequence. His first-hand reactions to unfathomable barbarity may in fact exemplify what Nylander has sought to signify with his film; the West’s conditioned nature towards racially immoral behaviours.
On a technical level, the film is clearly well made and cleverly edited with neat direction by Rob Lemkin. Textual quotes are made visceral through effective vignettes of stark and powerful images, allowing the film to maintain a pace some documentaries struggle with. It begins with the text of Conrad’s frank quote from his aforementioned book – “the conquest of the earth is not a pretty thing when you look into it”.
Nylander’s goal is clear, this is about parallels. Between men like Conrad’s Kurtz (the ivory trader who monopolised his position as a demigod among native Africans) and his opportunism sought to gain advantage from an ethnic minority – and, in Nylander’s own words, the “savagery at the heart of civilisation”.
Voulet is the real-life personification of this evil, a mass murderer who took advantage of position, power and a civilisation over a century ago. Throughout, Nylander frequently aims his vitriolic narration directly at the captain, as if Voulet here represents society as a whole, exemplifying it’s willingness to forget Voulet’s actions in Niger, banishing them to a simple footnote in history.
Where the film excels is aligning Voluet’s actions with the modern day. The stark truth and realisation of modern society’s equivalent savagery – this is where African Apocalypse packs it’s biggest punch. The most overt comparison comes when Nylander learns, as recently as 2014, France was using Niger workers to mine uranium with no protection at all. The stark reality of a modern world turning a blind eye to its evils.
As Nylander delves deeper into his journey, the film poses an introspective view as he begins to wrestle with his own history – as a remnant of the British Empire. A direct contribution to countless acts of war and consequences of colonialism, this invites us, the viewer, to look inwards. Are we part to blame for the divided society we have today and the ongoing colonialism society brushes under its feet? It is such questions posed as these which make the documentary such a moving and impactful watch.
With his journey nearing its conclusion, Nylander returns to the UK to find a further uncanny parallel between such barbaric acts of colonialism and the prescient race issue we still face, amidst the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020. This serves to exemplify the monumental challenge we as a society continue to endure, over 100 years on from Conrad’s novel.
The timely juxtaposition between 2020’s social climate and the story Nylander sets out to bring prominence to certainly adds a powerful prescience to its aim of punctuating societies’ deep-lying issue which lingers on. The timing of the film works hugely in its favour, yet one wonders whether it would have found quite the desired impact had the current climate not been as it is.
Nevertheless, the journey to trace Voulet’s devastating footsteps across Niger in tandem with our own sordid present, remains compelling, informative and truly shocking. At a time of year when we are used to being scared by make believe fantasies, Femi Nylander’s new film offers up a real-life horror story we should all be aware of. It shows how far we have come as a society since Conrad’s book, or more importantly, just how far we have yet to go.
African Apocalypse is released on BFI Player on 30th October.