It is hard to picture the suffering Niger felt at the hands of Paul Voulet in 1899. The deep scars left by his bloody tirade, although now distant in time, still live fresh in the minds of those living with the fallout of French colonialism and its brutal methods.
African Apocalypse charts the journey of Femi Nylander, an English-Nigerian poet and activist who becomes fascinated by colonialism while studying at Oxford. While reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Nylander discovers his a real-life Captain Kurtz, Paul Voulet. Voulet was a French military captain in 1899, tasked with expanding the French empire in Africa. In doing so Voulet goes rogue, disregarding his orders from Paris and leaving a path of destruction in his wake as he tears through Niger with merciless barbarity.
While the horrific nature of European colonialism has been well documented in recent months following the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue and the prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is a topic I am ashamed to say I knew very little about.
We are constantly told that we should be proud of our history and that the British empire is something that should be celebrated not venerated. However, after watching African Apocalypse, it is hard to feel anything other than disgust at what we once did, not only as a nation, but as a continent. Africa was carved up by European invaders and Niger was victim to what would now be considered one of the worst war crimes in human history. Sadly, Niger’s case is one of many and African Apocalypse paints a vivid picture of similar cases that took place all over the continent.
Femi and his guides trace Voulet’s path along Niger’s principal highway, stopping at the scenes of some of his most horrific crimes to listen and talk to those whose families were torn apart by Voulet and who live with his shadow still cast over them. We are told stories of beheading, limbs being cut off and fields of rocks used to murder pregnant women. It is unthinkable that one man could inflict such evil on men and women who have done no wrong. Sadly, the memories of these actions are etched into the minds of the elders in Niger. These memories are brought to life by chilling archive photographs and even a personal account taken from a woman recounting the torture she was victim to in 1899.
Femi’s own journey through Niger appears to test him on an emotional level. His sombre and at times tranquil manner confuses his guides, at one point causing them to call into question his lack of physical reaction. His steely gaze displays a combination of anger and disbelief as he is continually confronted with stories so tragic he seems at a loss for words. What he embarked on was an ambitious effort to confront colonial past and he does so with a gentle touch. One particular moment sees him discussing Niger’s past with a group of school children. The pain and grace with which they speak serves as a stark reminder of how deep the roots of Voulet’s evil are embedded in the cultural consciousness of Niger.
Every European would be well served by a viewing of African Apocalypse. It tackles a topic most are scared to discuss with a great deal of compassion and humility, while not shying away from the horrific nature of what occurred. In a time when sadly the value of a Black lives appears to still be up for debate, those who are not convinced would do well to educate themselves on the deep set trauma felt by those at the centre of this storm.
African Apocalypse is available to watch now on BFI Player.
Words by John Percival
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