From geopolitics to the arts, it’s impossible to ignore the impact of colonialism on the fabric of the modern world. How the imperial project, which ended over 100 years ago, continues to reverberate in the present day is central to African Apocalypse. But what lifts Rob Lemkin’s documentary above being an insightful yet average exposé is how it weaves these histories into current issues of Black and African identity.
Lemkin follows Femi Nylander, as he travels to Niger to uncover the myriad of ways in which colonialism has impacted everyday life and perceptions of African identities. Central to the journey is his attempt to identify the real-life inspiration for Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Eventually, he identifies a potential candidate – Paul Voulet, a French military officer who committed heinous acts of violence against Niger’s people during the late 1890s. With unmistakable anger but also a fervent curiosity, Nylander navigates how colonial history continues to shape African identity decades later, and how its effects continue to be felt in the most recent global events.
Nylander points out that in Heart of Darkness, the African people are largely silenced. Perhaps as a rebuttal to this, African Apocalypse places great emphasis on allowing Niger people to speak on their own experiences. These testimonies are intercut seamlessly with archival footage and dramatic readings of reports written at the end of the 19th century.
Amongst all this, and in many ways intrinsic to it, are Nylander’s efforts to find out more both about himself and the ways in which his identity has been shaped by colonial power structures. Even for those with a solid awareness of imperial history and colonialism, the depth of detail and the way that historical facts are intertwined with self-perception guarantees that you will finish African Apocalypse having gained a new perspective on the issue at hand.
Nylander’s personal pursuit of Voulet and his increasing camaraderie with the Niger people are what prevents the documentary from feeling like a cold exposition of facts. This is personal, and rather than allowing this to cloud historical accounts, Nylander’s strength as narrator comes from using his own emotional responses to stoke the flames that keep the film going with a burning, at times vivid intensity. The build-up is so masterfully handled that the end is almost inevitably going to feel like an anti-climax, yet it still seems like the perfect end to Nylander’s journey.
With powerful, unsettling imagery and a dedication to hearing those voices which white history has tried to drown out, African Apocalypse is compelling, essential viewing. Nylander’s presence proves central to a film that sets out to show exactly how and why identity cannot be separated from the colonial hierarchies that persist today.
African Apocalypse has yet to receive a release date.