African Apocalypse is a necessary and well-timed non-fiction retelling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
British-Nigerian Oxford University student Femi Nylander goes in search of the meaning and legacy of Colonial horror in West Africa. He discovers the unknown 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. Femi finds communities still traumatised by Voulet’s century-old violence.
Directed by Rob Lemkin and fronted by Nylander, when watching African Apocolypse you feel like you are witnessing an essential element of Colonisation a powerful reminder that the people of Niger and the entire diaspora are gravely affected by it today. Although emotionally challenging to relive the atrocities you find yourself just as curious as Femi to understand the man behind the massacres and the undeniable proof of his utter evil; more than anything, the documentary unravels a dark past in the heart of Niger and provides a platform for the people to express their anger and hurt from the past but also enables the audience to listen to their own first-hand accounts of history.
We spoke to Nylander and Lemkin to find out more about the film and the anticipation behind releasing it at LFF 2020 …
Please Introduce yourselves …
FN: My name is Femi Nylander, I am an actor, activist and musician and co-writer, and narrator of African Apocalypse.
RL: My name is Rob Lemkin. I am the director and co-writer of African Apocalypse.
Give a word or a sentence that best describes your life right now …
FN: Excited about the opportunities the film presents for shifting the narrative.
RL: Anticipating (response to our film).
Explain the focus of the documentary and why you chose it?
FN: The film lies in the space between drama and documentary, which allows it to appeal to a wide audience through the means of an emotional travelogue of sorts, by using the specific mission of Voulet as a dramatic device to introduce people to the wider topic of Colonialism as a whole and its impact on the modern world. Voulet’s descent into barbarism and atrocity, culminating in declaring himself an African chief, becomes an allegory for the wider evils of the Colonial project.
RL: We wanted to find a universal way into the subject of Colonial history and the idea that it continues until now. Voulet’s story is virtually unknown outside of Niger. The fact that he coincides so closely in attitude with Mr Kurtz in Heart of Darkness and just at the moment the book was written was just a spooky coincidence that makes the story weirder. But ultimately Voulet’s story stood in for all white European Colonialism.
Explain why you decided to call the film African Apocalypse?
FN: We went through many different possible names before settling on African Apocalypse. We wanted something quick and catchy that would give people an idea of what they should expect. The film doesn’t pull punches, it is very clear about the apocalyptic and genocidal nature of Voulet’s conquest. For the Hausa people of the region, Voulet’s invasion represented an apocalypse of sorts, a destructive end to their world as it was, and the beginning of the French Colony which is now known as Niger.
RL: There is an unspoken reference to another film version of Heart of Darkness – Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ in which Marlon Brando plays Kurtz. But more deeply it’s because the word ‘Apocalypse’ refers to a revelation of something that is hidden. Voulet’s massacres were a revelation of European racism. The journey across Niger was a revelation for Femi about the reality of Colonialism.
How long did the film take to put together and do you see it as a completed body of work or do you think there is more to explore?
RL: I started on it 7 years ago. But Femi and I worked on it for 3 years. When we take it across Niger with Amina Assan the Nigerian crew we made it with, there will be a lot more that will come out. Likewise, in France, there will be another reaction which may have direct active consequences. Maybe Niger will join the list of countries where France may face legal action over Colonial violence. There is also plenty of scope for that in Britain too, but not with the particulars of our research.
FN: I think it is a positive thing that the film took so long to put together as it has come out at a time when Colonialism is a hot topic. There is room to take it further in terms of utilising the film as an agent for change in France and as a combative tool against the continual NeoColonial system of France Afrique, and also in terms of opening up a wider conversation and the possibility of future on the countless untold Stories of European Colonial violence on the continent.
Femi there is a point at which your two guides question the lack of emotion you displayed when hearing the stories of Voulet and his massacres they said you had a “zen-like curiosity“. Was researching this painful history traumatic, had you already processed your feelings during research?
FN: There was a degree to which I had already processed some feelings of hurt and anger back in Oxford when I first heard about the atrocities, however, there was still something distinct in hearing the first-hand testimony of the people of measure and their own oral histories. I think my supposed lack of emotion was more of a method of coping as well as a reflection of the fact I felt I had no right to be centring myself. After the conversation with my guides, I felt more able to open up, and I think this was reflected in the later scenes.
The documentary had a sense of sadness and pain. Many of the people you spoke to young and old cried speaking about the experiences of their ancestors as if it was something that had just happened and not over a hundred years ago. Witnessing their pain and coming from a place (England/Western World) where Black people are told to get over all the atrocities that our ancestors experienced do you take a new kind of offence in that saying (because I do)?
FN: I think that is a very specific type of denialism when it comes to Black pain in the West. Whereas the German Holocaust is accepted as an awful part of history, we are told that slavery and Colonialism are in the past and that we should leave it there. I hope the film brought home the point that the consequences of slavery and Colonialism and the cultural memory of its violence are very much alive today.
Are reparations from Colonialism enough?
FN: The amount of money needed to repair for Colonialism and the wealth it extracted from the so-called developing world would run into the trillions and trillions of dollars. An entire upheaval of the global system of finance and power is needed. As the teacher in our film correctly states, even if all the money was to be repaid, the Colonial powers such as France and Britain could never repay for the lives that were taken.
RL: No. The global economy needs to be made more equal as its inequality is a result of Colonialism.
There was mention of Boko Haram and the idea that the violence extremists display is learned behaviour from Colonisers do you think there is any truth in this?
FN: The violence of terrorist groups is often a result of the poverty that was brought about by Colonialism, just as in Britain, the defunding of Youth Services and the impoverishment of minority communities is a large factor in the prevalence of knife crime. Violence is often a result of the desperation and boredom that is brought on by poverty.
RL: Voulet’s violence was state terrorism. I often say “Colonialism is the ultimate Cancel Culture … because it’s cancelled Culture after Culture after Culture”.
What are your thoughts on the SARS crisis happening in Nigeria today?
FN: I am wholeheartedly in support of the Nigerian youth who have taken to the streets to demand the end to police brutality on the SARS unit. I hope that the momentum that has been gained and the networks of grassroots direct action that has formed in the country will continue to put pressure on the establishment to move towards a more equal and better-governed country in which the youth have a much more prominent voice.
RL: I support the end SARS movement’s five recent demands.
Has your trip affected the way you view the world?
FN: I feel that this trip was the first time that I came face-to-face with the realities of Colonialism that before I had only read about in books. The journey has solidified my desire to fight systems of Colonialism and Neocolonialism wherever they appear in the world, and I learned a lot about the power of listening and letting people tell their story rather than telling it for them.
Some people spoke of the female spirits of the trees that protected some villages during the massacres. Do you believe in African spiritualism and is this something you would further explore?
FN: I see spiritualism as a way of interpreting the world, and I see the survival of African spirituality in the face of the imposition of Christianity and Islam on the continent as a testament to the cultural strength of these belief systems. I myself am not religious, but I find the varied and vibrant belief systems of the Continent fascinating.
RL: I find Bori animism very exciting. But I like spiritualism wherever it is based.
Femi, as a young creative, what is your mission?
FN: As a young creative, I want to create art – naturally. I wish, however, for that art to have a political message and contribute a positive change to the world. If you wish to see some of my other creative work, including my music, head over to www.feminylander.co.uk
What’s next for you?
FN: I’m going to continue to create, to learn languages, and to meet people from different cultures. I have ideas about future films/TV projects which travel the continent combining an interrogation of Colonial history with an uplifting showcasing of the various vibrant cultures, musical traditions, and people of Africa and the African diaspora.
Having a film like this screen at the London Film Festival is important, where else can people watch it?
RL: from October 30 on BFI Player.
African Apocalypse showed as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival. It will available on BFI Player from October 30th