Arts & Culture
AFRICAN APOCALYPSE: New documentary retelling Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’
22 May 2021
BBC TWO | Free
AFRICAN APOCALYPSE is an urgent and timely nonfiction retelling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novel by Polish-English novelist Joseph Conrad about a narrated voyage up the Congo River into the Congo Free State in the Heart of Africa.
Charles Marlow, the narrator, tells his story to friends aboard a boat anchored on the River Thames. Regarded as one of greatest English novels of the twentieth century, and inspired by Joseph Conrad’s own experiences, it touches on economic, social and political exploitation. Almost one-hundred years after publication, this timeless classic provided the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now.
Armed with a copy of Conrad’s classic novel, British-Nigerian Oxford University student Femi Nylander goes in search of the meaning and legacy of colonial horror in West Africa.
He discovers the unknown story of a French army captain, Paul Voulet, who descended into unspeakable barbarity in the conquest of Niger at the very moment Conrad wrote his book. Femi finds communities still traumatised by the century-old violence of Voulet. For many Nigeriens, their unenviable status as the world’s poorest country dates from the moment of Voulet’s arrival in their land. But amidst a tragic history.
Femi also encounters a beautiful spirit of hope: young people learning to find a way out of colonialism’s darkness, and a country determined to harness the power of its most precious resource, the light of the sun. He returns to Britain just as a new global confrontation of the legacy of empire and racism emerges in the Black Lives Matter protests. Empowered by his journey, Femi joins the movement determined to play his full part in this growing movement against oppression.
Directed by award-winning director Rob Lemkin (ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE), AFRICAN APOCALYPSE is produced by Geoff Arbourne (FOREVER PURE), David Upshal (THE HIP-HOP YEARS) and Rob Lemkin.
It was shot on location in the stunning desserts, mountains and cities of Niger by Claude Garnier ASC (ROSE AND THE SOLDIER) and edited by multi-award winning editor David Charap (THE POSSIBILITIES ARE ENDLESS, THE REASON I JUMP). The film is scored by the distinguished British-Nigerian composer Tunde Jegede.
The film was a collaboration with the Nigerien government’s cinema department under its director-general Sani Magori and involved a wealth of Nigerien filmmaking talent.
We wanted to show how the violence of colonialism is not just history, it shapes the modern world. Joseph Conrad famously and controversially all but denies Africans a speaking role in his indictment of imperialism. We wanted to put the African voice at the centre of our nonfiction retelling of Heart of Darkness. Our film put centre stage the marginalised Nigerien communities who have lived for a century with the legacy of a terrible and fantastic invasion. This film depicts a journey across space and time. It is an urgent dispatch from the world’s poorest country shot through the lens of the very history that caused its poverty. When we first left for Niger, colonial history seemed to many little more than a topic for intellectual debate. By the time we returned it had moved to the centre of world events. We hope that by telling in unprecedented detail this little-known story of imperial atrocity, this will be at the forefront of the new global search for an exit from the trauma or colonialism and racism.
Director and Writer
Rob Lemkin has produced and directed over 50 documentaries for BBC, C4 and other broadcasters in UK and US. His last feature film, ‘Enemies of the People’ (2010) was a groundbreaking account of the Killing Fields of Cambodia which he wrote, directed, photographed and produced. One of the most lauded documentary features of recent years it won around 30 international awards including Special Jury Prize at Sundance, Best Documentary BIFA and Emmy for Best Investigative Documentary. The film and its sequel ‘One Day at Po Chrey’ (2012) were at the heart of the United Nations trial of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Other work includes installations (Black & White Trio, Clore Gallery; I Was A Soldier 2014) and classic music films with Nina Simone, Chet Baker, Curtis Mayfield and Bobby Womack. During his years at the BBC he made two major films investigating British colonialism: ‘Who Really Killed Aung San? (1997) and ‘Malaya: the Undeclared War’ (1998). In 1994 he made for ITV the first television investigation of the killing of Stephen Lawrence, ‘Getting Away with Murder’ (1994) For several years, he ran Channel 4 News’ Independent Investigations Unit which won 5 Royal Television Society Awards and a BAFTA.
Featured Narrator and Co-Writer
Femi Nylander is an activist, poet and actor of African descent hailing from Manchester in the UK. He graduated from the University of Oxford in 2016. He wrote and performed two critically acclaimed TED talk poems, on migration and decolonial public health. He joined the “Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford” movement and appeared on the BBC’s Big Questions, Daily Politics and ‘The One Show’ to discuss decolonial history. He has appeared on Channel Four News (UK) on the subject of racism and featured in a Channel 5 (UK) series on the history of empire. He is a passionate campaigner around the topic of colonialism, both historical and present. Femi is a keen musician who creates music solo and in his jazz funk band Pangolin which has performed at London’s Ronnie Scott’s club, at multiple “Sofar Sets” and for BBC music. His poetry often bridges with his music and he has released such songs as Anthropocene, Song for the Congo and FrancAfrique. As an actor, he appeared in the new one-man play Mr Mineshaft about the legendary New York composer Julius Eastman at The Camden People’s Theatre. Recent acting work includes a featured performance in a film commercial playing opposite a major rock music star for a global brand, and the role of Lord Capulet in Romeo & Juliet at the Orange Tree Theatre. Femi has written for a number of publications including articles on his experience at Oxford for The Guardian, articles on David Attenborough and climate change for “Platform UK” and an article on the Codrington Library for Consented UK.
Tunde Jegede is a world-renowned composer, producer, cellist and kora virtuoso bringing a new vision to contemporary African and Western classical music. He studied Western classical music and the Griot Tradition of West Africa from a very early age, attending the Purcell School of Music in London with a Master of the Kora in the Gambia, Amadu Bansang Jobarteh. The founder of several ensembles including the Art Ensemble of Lagos and the African Classical Music Ensemble he is also the curator of Living Legacies, Gambia’s first traditional music archive, and the director of New Horizons, an educational initiative to develop young musicians in Nigeria. Tunde has been the Artistic Director of the MUSON Centre, one of West Africa’s only music conservatoires that specialises in classical music. He set up the NOK Foundation, a charitable organisation dedicated to raising consciousness through music, arts and culture.
The film is a presentation of The BFI Doc Society in association with BBC Arena, with support from the British Film Institute and the Bertha Film Foundation.
All Images courtesy of Rob Lemkin / Voulet Film Company Limited