We — by which I mean majority white people in majority white Western nations — have barely begun to scratch the surface of dealing with the atrocious legacy of the colonialism we have dished out on our precious planet. And so every attempt so far, no matter how limited or how small, hits with a shocking force. So it is with African Apocalypse, an intimate yet shattering new documentary from (white) filmmaker Rob Lemkin and British-Nigerian activist Femi Nylander.
Nylander, an Oxford university student, traveled to Niger to retrace the path of late-19th-century French soldier-invader Paul Voulet, a possible inspiration for Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness, which was in turn definitely the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now, both of which are about how white men get sucked into brutalizing nonwhite people, and how other white men feel about that. All these layers of artistic consideration of violence and oppression have, as Nylander points out, been presented from a white Western perspective, and have ignored those nonwhite, non-Western people whose lives were actually brutalized. So Nylander goes straight to those impacted, and follows a road literally blazed by Voulet — a road built by his troops more than a century ago as he crossed this corner of Africa savaging the locals — on his exploration of Niger today.
Nylander is looking for “the imperial history they didn’t teach at school,” and he finds it, with heartbreaking, provocative, and illuminating results. He wonders, at the outset of his journey, if the people he meets will even have any collective memory of Voulet’s rampage across their lands. He will be astonished at their response. “We will never forgive,” villagers on his journey say… villagers speaking French. They most certainly have not forgotten.
There is such beauty here — in the locals’ tales of, say, angry trees that repelled white aggressors and kindly spirits who protected villagers from invaders, indications of traditional Nigerien culture clinging on in the modern world — and such horrors, in tales of slaughters that caused the ground to run black with blood, and nightmares that still inspire tears of grief and pain in young people today. There is such irony here, in Nylander’s confrontation of colonialism from all angles… including the one that tells him that he is, as a Brit, barely distinguishable from a white person. (Whether that’s true is up to the viewer to decide, but it clearly hits Nylander like a punch in the gut.)
My first inclination is to say that there is surprising coincidence in how, at the end of Nylander’s journey, he returns from Africa to a pandemic-gripped Britain also convulsed by #BlackLivesMatter protests. But that only seems surprising and coincidental from my white perspective. Black people have not had the luxury of stepping away from seeing Black resistance as an unusual event. It is an ordinary, quotidian thing… and us white Westerners need to start acknowledging that, too, and reconsidering the history that has led us here. African Apocalypse is an excellent first step along that bloodied road.
viewed during the mostly virtual 64th BFI London Film Festival, in pandemic year 2020