Streaming Review

African Apocalypse review – grappling with the heart of darkness

Rob Lemkin's documentary of colonial ghosts is a superb piece of historiography that's slightly let down by a sloppy framing device

In a recent report, the UN declared that, of the 189 countries surveyed, Niger was the least developed. African Apocalypse takes that statistic and traces its origins back to one colonial mission, the blood-soaked 1898 march of French captain Paul Voulet. Rob Lemkin’s documentary follows Black British poet and activist Femi Nylander as he follows Voulet’s route through Niger, talking to local residents about the traumas left by this conquest.

As a piece of research, African Apocalypse is fascinating. Femi encounters Nigeriens whose grandparents had direct contact with Voulet, and his interviews with them have a visceral power, expressing the anger and disgust of an entire nation. Not only did the “Scramble For Africa” leave unhealable wounds and cruel ironies – schoolchildren have to express their hatred for France in French – but Europe’s mistreatment of Niger continues today.

Townspeople tell Femi he’s the first person to ever come and research their history, while local workers describe the hideous conditions of working in French-owned uranium mines as recently as 2014. It’s a damning indictment of Europe’s refusal to reckon with its colonial past, let alone atone for it.

This study of Niger and its past is just one part of African Apocalypse, which also functions as a personal essay by Femi, coming to terms with his identity as a black European through this journey and the way it relates to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This half of the film is a lot less successful, relying on a strained and overwritten voiceover.

The historiography here is hugely impressive, but the way it’s strung together sometimes feels lifted straight from a student film. Imperfect execution aside, African Apocalypse is a vital look at the barbaric consequences of colonialism that gives important insight into a country often overlooked on the world stage.

African Apocalypse is now streaming on BFI Player.

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