The BFI London Film Festival 2020 premiered African Apocalypse, a brilliant new documentary by British-Nigerian poet and activist Femi Nylander that uncovers a hidden part Africa’s colonial history.
The History They Didn't Teachby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness inspired Coppola’s nightmare Apocalypse Now, unforgettable for Marlon Brando’s personification of Colonel Kurtz, a colonial functionary gone mad.
Nylander wonders in his documentary African Apocalypse if Conrad’s fiction was actually inspired by a real person. Historical evidence he uncovers points him towards a Captain Paul Voulet, who laid waste to a swathe of French-colonised Africa before going rogue. Coincidentally, Voulet’s mad, bloodthirsty rampage was in the same year, 1899, that Conrad wrote his novel.
Accompanied by two local Nigerien guides and interpreters, Boubacar Assan Midal and Amina Weira, Nylander goes in search of the real Kurtz, following in Voulet’s footsteps (with an armed escort) across the hot, dry north of Niger to Lake Chad.
Though he called the locals ‘savages’, Voulet is shown to be the real savage. Even over a century later, his savagery is still surprisingly raw and fresh in the memories and oral history of the locals Nylander meets, as they recount the suffering of their great-grandparents and grandparents. Voulet and his soldiers wantonly shelled and destroyed towns along his route (still in ruins), massacred their peaceful, unarmed, agricultural inhabitants and massively plundered the country’s natural resources.
The legacy of French colonialism is long-lasting poverty for people and country, leaving Niger as one of the world’s poorest, underdeveloped nations. Workers in colonial times died in French uranium mines, though Niger itself did not benefit from the mineral’s export, and today many places still have no electricity.
In another act of brutality towards the country and its people, Voulet felled ancient baobab trees to build a road to facilitate the movement of his troops. To this day it is Niger’s only national highway. But for the animist peoples of the time, those trees housed natural spirits, and so in destroying them, he destroyed their world. It’s still deeply felt today.
What is so unusual about African Apocalypse is Nylander’s personal engagement with the historical subject of his film – he speaks directly to Voulet in his voiceover – and his interaction with his interviewees and his guides.
After he has heard so many recollections of terrible events from these highly articulate local people, his guides upbraid him for showing so little outward emotion. He admits it’s not intentional and this jolts him into increasingly deeper identification with the people he meets. We see him gradually changing to adapt to local customs and welcomed enough by them to take a natural, unself-conscious part in their meetings and ceremonies.
Unusually too, his guides are also active in wanting to show him something positive about their country to counteract the misery he is recording, and he is taken to see how solar energy is now being exploited for its development.
Does it take a poet or an activist to make such a perceptive documentary? Maybe it benefits from the synergy of both sensibilities. African Apocalypse is gripping detective work, factually revelatory and emotionally memorable. It benefits from Nylander being able to speak French and picking up the local language as he goes. And, it becomes obvious, being black and able to relate in a way that a white journalist would not.
One thing African Apocalypse shows clearly is the humiliation that the older generation still feels at what was done by the French to their forebears. Even young people get emotional at learning of these long-ago atrocities. Perhaps we need to understand these feelings of hurt and anger to comprehend the strength of anti-Western feeling and the jihadism of Boko Haram coming out of Islamic Africa?
African Apocalypse is a brilliant revelation of a little-known truth behind Africa’s post-colonial history and how that may contribute to today’s Black Lives Matter movement in which Nylander is active.
African Apocalypse screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on BFI Player on 30 November 2020.