African Apocalypse (Review)

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is used as the impetus into an exploration of the ongoing effects of colonialism in Niger in this excellent documentary. Where many historians, and public figures, relegate colonialism to the comfortable past – pushed back as far as possible despite its actual proximity to the present – this documentary focuses on colonialism as an active force. It is a vital argument and it is accessibly and intelligently constructed. It is a story about the victims of colonialism that gives voice to those victims, while also interrogating the complicity of modern day Europeans (and any who still benefit from this legacy of oppression).

The film charts a personal journey of activist, poet (and more), Femi Nylander, as he looks for a historical figure that matches Conrad’s fictional Kurtz. This leads him to Paul Voulet, a true monster of the innately monstrous system of colonialism. Femi retraces the steps that Voulet and his French army took through Niger, culminating in arriving at his grave (and unpicking what that monument means). Along the road – the path that Voulet and his soldiers took is now genuinely a road, the main road (something the film interrogates) – Femi meets the people of Niger and talks to them about modern day Niger, and about the past.

One of the many great things about this film is how it is as much about modern day Niger as it is about Paul Voulet and colonialism. It does not let a country be defined solely by its past – it shows life, vivacity and the everyday – but it does show how the past has deeply limited the present. A repeated way this is done is through archive footage. The fact that we have archive footage, including short bits of actual film, is a stark reminder of how modern this event still is – how the colonisation of Niger is not the distant past. The film often transitions from archive footage to the present, matching imagery cleverly and showing then and now, and often displaying how little has changed. This merging of the past and present is a superb, filmic articulation of how past dictates present.

The main stylistic device is the use of Heart of Darkness alongside records of the actual colonial invasion. This is a smart juxtaposition and implicitly shows the clear limitations of Conrad – and how his fictionalised take cannot live up to the horrors of reality, and devalues it. The status of Conrad is under covert critique, and cleverly mirrored by the role of Femi in the narrative. The narrative of Heart of Darkness, a man from Europe tracking the footsteps of a colonising monster, is echoed here. Femi is a British citizen of Nigerian parentage but it is his ‘Europeanness’ that is used here. He is a European sent after a monster and this narrative repetition is another way of showing the echoing impacts of colonialism – as well as opening up questions about complicity.

Perhaps the film could be more critical of Conrad, directly so; perhaps it could show more of Niger as a place and a people – and better show the resistance of their people against Voulet. However, the film that exists is a focused critique that is emboldened by a 90 minute length and a clear narrative (with an accessible conceit). All this being the case, this still does enough to show Niger and does tell its stories through its people – letting the modern day citizens express the modern day effects. Some of these interactions are unbelievably powerful and hugely resonant.

Though it has limitations, this is a really impressive and very important film. It manages to excellently achieve the balance between accessibility and rigour: creating a film that people will want to watch in a way that doesn’t do a disservice to its weighty topic (one that is very hard to deal with, but is necessary). A lot of this comes down to Femi’s presence as our guide an narrator. His style is interrogative but open, written in a purposefully poetic style that, once again, brings the past into the present. At the end, the film brings us to the present, to a BLM demonstration in Oxford – and mentions a lot of modern concerns. It is an interesting coda that brings together a lot of the key themes – and effectively demonstrates the limitations of this film, and its knowledge of them. These stories continue and colonialism still dictates our present.

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