African Apocalypse: The real ‘heart of darkness’

“They really relished the opportunity to present themselves for an international audience and be able to say, ‘this is what happened to my grandparents, this is what happened in this village and this is how we feel about this today’,” Nylander adds.

Conrad drew from his own experience of the European occupation of the African territory, where for some time he was part of the crew of a steamer traversing the Congo river. But over the years, historians have pointed to the influence of several real-life people for his depiction of his antagonist Kurtz, including Léon Rom, an administrator for Belgian King Leopold, British army officer Edmund Musgrave Barttelot, his associate slave trader Tippu Tip and Henry Morton Stanley, the leader of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition.

It was during a research project related to Heart of Darkness that Nylander came across these barbaric figures and was subsequently introduced to Paul Voulet. He noticed several similarities between Conrad’s Kurtz and the French captain: both were Europeans with an Imperialist superiority complex who were sent to African territories on a mission of conquest but went mad, inevitably ignored orders and used savagery to enforce their power over the indigenous people. But as the documentary points out, Voulet couldn’t have been a direct influence on Conrad’s writing.

“The point about it really is not so much that Kurtz was based on Voulet so much as the idea that as Conrad is writing things, like Kurtz going into the Congolese forest and putting himself up as a tribal guy who was controlling so-called natives, with his quill pen in Kent, Voulet at exactly the same time was doing that in real life,” Lemkin tells BBC Culture. “It’s a sleight of hand in our movie to say, ‘Here’s a guy who it could be. Let’s go off and find it.’ Obviously when we get there, we’re really telling another story.”

“We wanted to say that truth is stranger than fiction,” Nylander adds, “or in some ways more brutal than fiction.” Voulet certainly comes across as a more brutal person than Kurtz. While Conrad implies that his antagonist was a gentle soul before transforming into a tyrant, it’s said that Voulet was chosen by French powers to lead the campaign precisely because of his ruthlessness. “Paul Voulet, the 32-year-old son of a doctor, had, according to his officer colleagues, ‘a true love of blood and cruelty coupled with a sometimes foolish sensitivity,’” writes Sven Lindqvist in his book Exterminate the Brutes.

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