Rob Lemkin always does a lot of reading in preparation for his films. As an Oxford-based filmmaker, perhaps it’s par for the course. In the years he spent making the award winning Enemies of the People, as well as his earlier 1990s BBC films about colonialism in Southeast Asia, he came to realise that there were very few films that really query colonialism. “So I kind of gravitated towards thinking about readings that I had done and thinking about how Heart of Darkness has been a universal text that still stands, notwithstanding all of the criticisms that are made of Conrad’s racism, language and so on and so forth.”
In the course of further research into Heart of Darkness, Lemkin discovered the story of a rogue French army commander, Paul Voulet, who was slaughtering his way through Niger in 1898 at the same time that Conrad was writing his book. Lemkin persuaded the BFI to fund him to go to Niger to see what he could find out about Voulet.
During his recce trip he found that the Voulet story was still incredibly present, not least because Voulet’s terrible path of murderous destruction led to the highway that runs through the country. “The idea that that his journey still existed now as a road just felt to me like wow this was a way of really connecting Colonialism to a universal present,” Lemkin says.
After his recce trip, Lemkin was wondering how to approach the film when his partner came across Femi Nylander performing in a pub down the road from their home. “He was performing songs including one about the Congo, which obviously is where Conrad’s book is set. She came back and she said ‘maybe you should look at him’”. Nylander is a British-Nigerian poet-activist who had recently been active in the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. Soon Lemkin and Nylander decided to make the film together.
In African Apocalypse, which had its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Nylander follows the path of Voulet’s destruction, with the help of two local guides. On top of scenes of their journey, and various encounters with the locals, we hear Nylander’s thoughts as he reads the diaries of Voulet. In the verité footage, however, when interacting with descendants of his victims – who are clearly still traumatised – Nylander often seems impassive.
Extraordinarily, in the middle of the film, the two guides confront him about his lack of emotion. “I think it’s a testament to him and to his courage that he was happy to have that scene included, because it was a bit of a forceful personality critique,” says Lemkin. “He is a young guy for whom colonialism is an enormous issue amongst the student population. In the environment of the student hothouse, world colonialism is an issue, a subject, a topic for discussion, a thing. You don’t actually breathe it, touch it and feel it; you read it, you watch about it, you talk about it.”
Lemkin says that whilst Nylander is very effective at being forceful in television discussions, he found it much more difficult on the road with limited language and various pressures. “I realised that Femi would need a lot of orientation because suddenly were not in the Oxford Union or in some student hub. And it’s raw but it’s also random and there’s a lot of different kinds of things that are going on– present tense issues and awareness of historical issues.”
Lemkin says Femi found it quite hard to be constantly under the scrutiny of the camera. “It’s a difficult pressure to be on for anyone,” he says. “When he was going into the real community he still had the feeling that he was a consumer of testimonies. One of the things that we were able to deploy as a mechanism is trying to ask: How does a young black person coming from a formerly colonised country deal with this kind of history?”
This question works as a motif that threads through the narrative, Lemkin says. “Although at the time when we shot that scene, I wasn’t really thinking about it in such a motif and narrative kind of way. I was just thinking more about the fact that in reality both of the guides and myself were feeling a sense of frustration about the fact that he did not seem to be able to or want to connect in a totally full throttle human way with the groups of people that we were meeting.”
Lemkin says that although Nylander had learned rudimentary Hausa and French for the trip, the rushes reveal that the people really couldn’t understand him. “It’s kind of google translate hausa and they’re not getting it. And the people that we are speaking to are not necessarily literate people, so there’s quite a gap. But I think they also feel a sense of feeling like they can educate Femi with what they say to him in a way that responding to me as a white person there is a different power dynamic.”
By interweaving Nylander’s voiceover with the verité footage, and existing archive, the final film is an engrossing narrative with many layers which succeeds, as Lemkin intended in querying colonialism and bringing its often terrible legacy into the here and now.
Lemkin’s aesthetic approach to filming was to treat the shoot like a road movie. “We wanted to really capture the sense that we were going from encounter to encounter, and it was actually going into places where Femi was meeting people for the first time. This was really critical for me. Even Claude (Garnier, the DoP) was saying ‘do we really have to film them going in?’ and I said ‘yes we really have to film them going in’. And we use that a lot of the time just because I think it gives you a feeling of the freshness and unpredictability of the encounter”.
The meetings that we see Nylander have are the result of Lemkin’s two previous trips to Niger, where he spent a lot of time scouting the right people to talk to. “What appears to be a spontaneous journey isn’t,” he admits. “It was very important to have actual community meetings very well established so we could put in archive and make it feel it was something that you are mentally flipping to and from across time all the way through.”
Such personal connections are necessary for the viewer to then be able to connect with the archive, Lemkin says. “Otherwise you could just end up feeling that the whole thing was theoretical and abstract and academic. Not like I don’t like academic, but I think it’s important that it’s rooted in human experience.”
African Apocalypse is available now on the BFI player.