★★★★☆

“You’d never know what’s underneath, unless someone told you.” History books, lectures and internet searches cannot possibly substitute hearing first-hand the effects of Europe’s colonialist past on one of the most impoverished countries in the world. In Rob Lemkin’s African Apocalypse, Oxford University student Femi Nylander’s voyage of discovery digs into a trail of bloodthirsty destruction led by one man, echoing the brutal savagery of so many more.

Using Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as his catalyst and point of reference, Femi travels west to east along modern-day Niger’s national highway, following in the footsteps of French military officer Paul Voulet. It was in the late 1890s that from one burned-down village to the next Voulet led his men on a rampage towards Lake Chad. His instructions were that it be captured in order to maintain France’s control of lands they had conquered from falling into the hands of the British.

Undertaking “A journey through space and time for this real-life Kurtz,” Femi is accompanied by two guides, Amina and Assan, as well as soldiers armed to the teeth for their protection. Smashed-in coaches, car wrecks and lorries lying on their sides, as well as the reported threat of terrorist group Boko Haram, all indicate that the voyage could well be a dangerous one. Interjections from Conrad’s novel (read by Toby Stephens), historical documents and recitations of Voulet’s own writings accompany Femi’s progress and provide him (and us) with one part of a framework with which to contextualise this journey.

Black and white photos and library footage of men, women and children missing limbs, mutilated bodies, and decapitated heads on spikes provides another. One that sickens, but that is necessary for the truth of the horrors that occurred along this route not to be forgotten or dismissed. The material, and its assembly by Lemkin and Nylander – who co-wrote the film, is as rich and articulate as it is deeply shocking. The depth of context given is impressive, but it is with the testimony of the many people whose recollections we hear that this background comes to the fore, punching home the film’s message.

“Imagine if they burned your brother to death in front of your own eyes.” Addressed directly by many interviewees such as this man, we are left dumbfounded. The transfer of history here is passed down by stories told from generation to the next. The ‘they’ of whom he speaks are ‘the whites’ for they do not distinguish between European nations. Horrific atrocities committed by Britain, Germany and Belgium elsewhere in Africa are referenced and must be acknowledged as just as severe, if not worse, than those committed by Voulet. Born in Bolton to Nigerian parents, Femi’s dual viewpoint as a son of both Europe and Africa causes him to reflect.

Guilt at being from one nation that committed such devastation, causing problems that persist in Africa today, his ancestors would also have likely suffered at the hands of invading colonialist forces. In voiceover, these emotions are internalised as he attempts to reconcile conflicting ideas of self with what he sees and hears from those with whom he speaks. His two guides seem to turn on him somewhat, surprised at his outward stoicism. But it is understandable for Femi to need time to process – such is the litany of massacres that he hears.

Educated about what occurred in the age of their great-grandparents, the faith of a group of schoolchildren in the redemptive power of conscience demonstrates a maturity well beyond their years – and a belief that Femi considers to give too much credit to those who should take heed. But 2020 has seen a collective awakening to the ills of the past, the atonement and admission of guilt that must be forthcoming from France and other nations. Although African Apocalypse is a drop in the ocean, it is an integral part of a movement whose waves continue to grow.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63