African Apocalypse is a road movie that sees British-Nigerian poet-activist Femi Nylander follow in the ghastly footsteps of French military officer Paul Voulet, who was sent out from Senegal in 1898 to conquer the Chad Basin and unify all French territories in West Africa. The Voulet-Chanoine campaign saw the creation of Niger, under French control with a border to the British-controlled Nigeria in the south, in a brutal colonial land grab.
Directed by Rob Lemkin, the documentary uses Joseph Conrad’s classic text Heart of Darkness as a way into the brutal colonial mindset of the French military officer. In doing so, the film highlights the continuing impact of colonialism today, with monetary power and government trade rather than force as a means of welding power. Through Nylander’s winning personality and his touching interaction with locals, an understanding is built of the trauma that the Nigeriens are still dealing with, caused by the violence of its colonial past.
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More uplifting is the commentary on how the Nigeriens are trying to forge an independent future in a country that in 2019 was ranked bottom in the United Nations’ Human Development Index. The film manages that rare feat of being entertaining, informative and timely, with footage of Nylander in England advocating for the removal of statues and speaking at a Black Lives Matter rally bookmarking his trip to Africa.
In our chat, Nylander and Lemkin talk about their experiences, the problematic nature of Conrad, and whether there is a roadmap that will help Niger, and other colonised nations across the globe, to a more prosperous future.
Femi, the film starts with you studying in Oxford, joining protests calling for Oxford University to take down the statue at Oriel College honouring British mining magnate Cecil Rhodes, an imperialist who governed South Africa promoting white supremacy, dispossession and colonialism. At what point did you decide you wanted to make a film about the creation of Niger by the brutal French colonialist Paul Voulet?
While I’ve done some stuff on television, and some personal music and video projects, I’d never worked in film before. I’d been reading and writing about colonialism. Rob Lemkin was looking into making more films about colonial history. He’d been to Niger before. I met Rob through his partner seeing me in an open mic night in Oxford when I was performing a song about the Belgian Congo, which is a song quite heavily featured in the film. Rob and I connected over our mutual interest in colonial history, and a desire to make a compelling visual experience allowing a non-academic audience to access this fresh take on what colonialism means to the modern world.
Before I met Femi, I’d already been working on this film, with the support of the BFI. I’d been making films about British imperialism for quite a few years, mostly for television, when I worked at BBC2 in Birmingham, in a special department where we made films about racism and colonialism. I’m sure the apartment doesn’t exist now. We made films in south-east Asia; my partner, who Femi just talked about, is from Burma. I always felt like there was something quite universal that films should be saying about imperialism and its knock-on effects today. Until this year, I would say that very few people would really be acknowledging the sort of fundamental impact of colonial history. The impetus was to try and make something that could be quite universal through a specific history.
Is that how you came to comparing Paul Voulet to Colonel Kurtz in Heart of Darkness?
I was interested in seeing what Heart of Darkness could do in terms of taking us into the kind of universal history, even though Heart of Darkness is, obviously, quite a problematic book. It’s interesting cinematically because it’s had all these film adaptations, including Apocalypse Now (1979). Then it was really by accident that I discovered this story about Niger when I went there. And then when I came back, I met Femi.
At that point, I was still looking for how to make this film feel like it was making a big statement that could work particularly well for younger audiences. And when I met Femi, I thought, here’s a young person who is the same age as my own children and is really engaged and active about colonialism. I thought we could collaborate, go to Niger, and kind of riff and improvise along the routes (taken by Voulet) and come up with a film journey.
Femi, had you read Heart of Darkness before meeting Rob?
I’d looked at it and the critiques. I may have touched on it very, very briefly in school; I probably was supposed to read it and didn’t, to be honest. But I reread it once we started prepping for the film because I needed to look at it from a new lens.
Do you think referring to the Joseph Conrad book, which Rob has called dated, continually when talking about colonialism is a little bit dated itself?
Definitely, I think! Nonetheless, the compelling thing is that Voulet was committing these massacres at the exact time as Conrad was writing about Kurtz. There are so many uncanny parallels between the 2 characters: the idea of declaring himself an African chief in the middle of the Sahara; the fact that there’s a river involved in both – Voulet travels along the river Niger, and Kurtz along the Congo river.
There are so many parallels that it would have been a waste not to use that kind of cinematographic, compelling story. Yes, Conrad is overdone in some ways. And the fact that the main text on colonial history is written by a Polish guy who lived in England and only gave Africans one line in his book is deeply problematic. But we take that and quickly segue into using that as a springboard to the film actually being about the Nigeriens and what they have to say.
Most of the film is direct testimony – the oral histories of people on the ground, telling what happened to them. Whereas in Conrad, it’s about this Marlow character, his perspective, and the natives don’t get a word to speak. I think we use the text, but we don’t allow the text to use us.
We use Conrad’s text because we’re interested in this archetypal character. Femi’s interested in it; the film’s interested in it. Kurtz is an archetype; Cecil Rhodes and Voulet are the same archetypes. Whatever skin colour you have, we all have to deal with overturning that archetype because it’s the one that’s stalking the world and continuing to give a huge amount of grief.
Speaking with you, it does lead to the question of whether you’re telling the story of Africa only through a colonial archetype, the same issue you’re trying to dispel?
Well, I think we’re subverting the archetype. We’re using the archetype to give a universal idea, but actually, there are about 30-odd Nigerien people who Femi meets along the road, who speak in an incredibly direct and impassioned way. And that is, I think, unusual to experience that. The reality is that everybody even in Niger talks about Voulet-Chanoine as an archetype, because Voulet is always associated with his adjunct, Julien Chanoine, which we don’t really go into in the film.
I’m just suggesting that we have a film where all the great unique moments, for me, are with Femi’s interactions with the locals, such as the young schoolgirl talking about how the border separates her from her sister. And perhaps continually using Conrad isn’t necessarily the best way to go about telling the story of Niger, given cancel culture and all the problems with that.
Ok, well that’s your opinion.
The pivotal moment in the film is that moment where the Nigeriens say no one’s come before to tell our history. And I think what they mean by that is the history from their perspective. What did you discover?
It’s really shocking that no one has come to ask about their history, but – deeper than that – no one’s interested in it or the communities in this particular place. When you erect statues of people like Cecil Rhodes and have the likes of our current prime minister saying, “We shouldn’t be taking these statues down because we’re denying history,” there’s a complete blank over the fact that the history of many millions of people has been denied. I think colonialism is the ultimate cancel culture. It’s cancelled culture after culture after culture.
I think Niger is a particularly strong case because of its sense of lack of development now. Also, you can almost pinpoint the creation of the borders of the country down to one person – one person who allegedly was a genocidal maniac. Quite frankly, the French and the British were very happy to trade off one another afterwards, and there’s a complete dismissal of that history.
Femi, the way that you celebrate Nigerien culture is so uplifting, especially the use of song and the way that you bring your own personality into it. How was that process for you?
That was mainly spontaneous. For me, trying to learn the song, writing lyrics and getting involved in the culture was a way to connect with them on a different level. That was very important. And I think that’s one of my favourite scenes, where I stand up and sing.
The film ends with Femi talking at a Black Lives Matter rally in England, including images of the toppling of the Edward Colson statue. How is this moment a signifier of change for you personally?
The issues the Black Lives Matter protests address are important because it ties it in with a whole strand through the film that a version of colonialism is happening today. The whole thing that we’ve seen stems from the George Floyd protests, which were about a very specific incident of one man having his neck stood on and being killed by the police, triggering discussions about colonialism and slavery and the toppling of the Colston statue in Bristol. It shows the systems of white power and domination and the oppression of black lives and colonised peoples globally is all one interrelated thing. And while you can’t literally say French colonialism and British colonialism and all these are the same, we can draw the parallels and say, “Look, I’m an English guy making a film about French colonialism. But it’s relevant for English colonialism because the English did similar things”, which is what we say in one scene where we talk about the British in Sudan, the Germans in Namibia and the Belgians in Congo. I think it’s fortuitous in a way that the film took us so long to make because it came out at the right time.
Do you think the BLM manifesto is right and the problem stems from capitalism itself?
We’re told a story in school that the start of British capitalism was all about the invention of the steam engine and the industrial revolution. We’re not told the story of all of the natural resources and human labour, which were stolen from the developing world in order to make this supposed industrial revolution possible. And I think that capitalism, as it has developed has depended on colonialism and extractivism to achieve its aims, and so I would say that definitely, capitalism, as it has developed, from the time of the industrial revolution to now, has continually depended on exploiting people in the so-called developing world.
Obviously, BLM is an amorphous group in America, in Britain, and everywhere else in the world, and we’re not signing up to manifesto for them. But I hope that what people get from this film is that we are saying something more along the lines of decolonise capitalism. Then the argument could be: can you decolonise capitalism? I don’t know. But in our film, you see the possibilities of getting people into solar energy and that is a real thing that’s going on in Niger. It’s the country where the first solar machine was invented, made by a Nigerien scientist, but it wasn’t developed there, as they didn’t have any money. But, if a country like that can get a decent renewable energy system going and people in the country control it, then why not? Although right now it looks like the French company Orange will control it.
It’s probably a bit simplistic to say, “Oh, it’s all a problem of capitalism.” But certainly, there needs to be a decolonisation of entrepreneurialism, so that people can be free to actually do stuff without being controlled by hidden forces from afar, which tend to be racist, imperialist forces. And that’s kind of where we’re coming from in this film.
- African Apocalypse is in cinemas and on BFI Player from 30 October