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FILM REVIEW: African Apocalypse – The BFI London Film Festival 2020

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Director: Rob Lemkin

“The conquest of the earth… is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much”; this quote from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is the starting point for Rob Lemkin’s very personal voyage through Africa’s history of colonial oppression. His 90-minute documentary African Apocalypse journeys from the UK to Niger to understand heritage, identity and the enduring impacts of European occupation.

Studying at Oxford, Femi Nylander reads Conrad’s novel and becomes intrigued by its chief villain Mr Kurtz. Determined to find his real life counterparts, Nylander discounts the more famous Cecil Rhodes and a German military figure and instead researches the history of Captain Paul Voulet whose terrifying campaign of massacres, destruction and torture has left its mark on the people and landscape of Africa.

Through direct narration, often directed at Voulet, Nylander’s engaging commentary offers a fierce exposé of the behaviour of colonial forces, raw in its fury at the wholesale destruction not just of Niger’s people but of its landscape and spiritual culture. Communicating with his guides in French – an unremarked but nonetheless a pointed example of the impact of empire – to his surprise, Nyland learns, that villagers and communities remember the name Voulet and his terrible impact on their nation.

There is an interesting contrast with Nylander’s traditional approach to research using books, physical photographs and maps rather than the Internet as he looks into Voulet’s history with the discussion of spirits and belief that shape the lives of the men he speaks to. Lemkin incorporates Voulet’s own words that demonstrate growing savagery, taken from military reports, as well as excerpts from Conrad’s novel read by Toby Stephens that run through and shape the film, building a firm historical case as well as an emotive one.

Lemkin’s film is beautifully shot, giving a richness to the people and the landscape that allows them to tell this story. The combination of Nylander’s intimate approach and Lemkin’s immersive style force the audience into this film as we confront the terrible deeds, inhumanity and continuing exploitation of African resources along with the filmmakers while letting the people of Niger explain their knowledge of these events and their consequences in their own words.

Nylander, at one point, is critiqued by his guides for seeming to register no outward emotion on his face. It is an honest moment to include, one that questions his own responses. It’s a question that hangs over African Apocalypse asking us to properly consider how responsible we are generations on because while this is history to people in the UK, it is a living present for the people of Niger. This is our history too and the past is never just the past.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October

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