Femi Nylander explores the story of Paul Voulet, who’s story echoed Joseph Condrad’s novel The Heart of Darkness, a text that many have cited as crucial for understanding European Colonialism. Hoping to escape the European narratives and explore the legacy of colonialism in West Africa Femi Nylander travels to Niger.
The film is a road movie with archival footage, historical re-enactments and interviews. Remarkable interview footage with people who have lived with this history and have even experienced some of the legacy of this colonial horror first hand, is combined with truly savage original material and photographs. This is a painfully provocative exploration of the legacy of massacres and enslavement.
As a documentarian, Femi Nylander is very present and a part of his narrative, spending most of his time in front of the camera including recreations of his research process. He relates the exploration of Conrad’s novel and Paul Voulet with his own experience of undertaking the journey. It’s interesting to experience this story from his perspective, but the film-makers ego feels a little abundant. The story is extraordinary and human enough that we did not require an avatar. However, this is more going on with this story.
There are two stories competing with each other here. One is the story of Paul Voulet and his horrific actions in Africa and the impact that is still felt to this day. The other is the story of Femi Nylander exploring this story. The latter can feel burdensome as Nylander spends a great deal of time on camera, sometimes at the cost of the people he is interviewing. However he is picked up on his attitude as his guides complain that he is not emoting enough to the stories he is hearing. This opens the door to explain the tricky issue that although Black and having ancestry in Nigeria, Nylander is still a European and his perspective on this very real suffering is that of a European.
African Apocalypse is a fascinating story that is at once a literary study, an explosive exploration of past shame and an urgent warning from history. It’s also a metafictional commentary on the difficulty of telling a history without the context of the teller. The film doesn’t balance it’s elements as well as you’d hope and some, such as the continued exploitation of Africa by European Countries get lost in the telling. Nevertheless this is a powerful work.