The title of Staffan Julén and Marius van Niekerk’s documentary My Heart of Darkness obviously evokes Joseph Conrad’s nightmare tale of the European colonization of Africa. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (first published as a three-part magazine series in 1899) revealed the brutality of European rule, but it has also, in recent decades, been criticised for presenting Africa itself as a place of moral and cultural darkness, an abyss inexorably drawing the European colonizers down. As Captain Marlow travels along the river deeper into central Africa, the heart of Africa also becomes a symbol for the ‘evil’, ‘uncultured’ side of human nature.
My Heart of Darkness reverses this image. van Niekerk is a fifty-year old white South African Boer. At seventeen he was drafted into the South African army, eventually becoming a paratrooper, an elite soldier. As such, he took part in the wars the South African apartheid regime fought against the liberation movement of Namibia and the leftist MPLA government of Angola. Sick of the atrocities he had witnessed and taken part in, he went into exile, arriving in Sweden in 1983.
But van Niekerk couldn’t escape his memories. Exile cost him his family. Posttraumatic stress disorder threatened his sanity and drove him to drink and abusive relationships. Now he fears that his guilty memories will prevent him from being a good father to his two young daughters. He returns to Angola to confront his past and achieve some form of reconciliation, with himself as well as with his former enemies. Together with three Angolan war veterans he sets off on a boat trip up the river Kwando, to re-visit some of the battlefields where they once fought. The composition of the group is such that each of the four men represents a distinctive experience of the war.
There is Patrick, who fought with the MPLA to defend ‘his nation’. A big bulk of a man, he initially exudes national pride and machismo. Having been on the ‘right’/right side of the conflict he takes a rather high moral ground at first and also, loyally, maintains that his life in the army did him nothing but good (I hesitate about quotation marks here – ‘right’/right – since the MPLA certainly was and is not without serious faults, still it did historically represent the side I would, though critically, defend).
Mario, a Bushman, was recruited first into the Portuguese army, then by the South Africans. The colonial masters, as everywhere, exploited, aggravated or created ethnic tensions and racism in order to divide and rule. The legacy lives on in the form of discrimination. Mario remains the most quiet and solitary of the four men.
Finally, there is Samuel, who was pressed into Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA as a child soldier. Savimbi, often described as a psychopath, became a Portuguese agent in the early seventies. Though UNITA was set up as an alternative liberation movement, partially along ethnic lines, they quickly started fighting the MPLA rather than the Portuguese. After independence, as the MPLA looked set to take power, UNITA was financed and armed by South Africa, Israel, Zaire’s Mobuto and according to the logics of the cold war in those days – much like the Khmer Rouge – by both China and the US. The decades-long war did what it was supposed to, preventing any real chance of creating a ‘good example’ of leftist rule in the resource-rich country. Like Mario, Samuel appears shy and self-effacing to begin with. Like many former UNITA soldiers he fears revenge.
As they journey along the Kwando the four men trade stories, often gruesome. An initially strained and edgy atmosphere gradually gives way to cautious friendships. They alternately confess and forgive each other. Simultaneously the camera captures the beauty of the Angolan landscape in the style of a nature documentary. Life is returning to a landscape that was devastated by the war. The men come to realise that no matter what side they fought on, they have much in common. They were young men, boys even, with few opportunities, more or less pressured into participation in this war. Certainly, it is natural that van Niekerk has the greatest burden of guilt to carry, as he had options unavailable to the others. Still, he was little more than a child, raised in the environment of apartheid South Africa.
Patrick’s nationalist loyalties also start to crumble as his friendship with Samuel develops. He admits that he too was forced into the army, that the war cost him his youth, his chance to an education, the life of his best friend. Like van Niekerk, he took to drink, became violent. Though they all face up to the atrocities they have taken part in – war leaves no one without guilt – they also see a pattern different to that of MPLA versus UNITA, ethnicity versus ethnicity. They see that some people fight the wars and others reap the benefits, and that it is rarely the children of the latter who are sent to battle. A tentative solidarity manifests itself as Samuel invites his new friends to his village for a ceremony of cleansing and forgiveness. When a storm damages his family’s home, the other three men decide to stay on and help rebuild it.
Having read that this was a film about ‘reconciliation’ I approached it with much scepticism. Far too often, as in South Africa, top-down processes of staged ‘reconciliation’ have taken the place of justice, of real change, of economic redistribution and genuinely democratic change. The global establishment loves nothing more than cost-free forgiveness. But I needn’t have worried. What we see here is quite a different and much more hopeful process: reconciliation from below based on – although the participants would probably never use the term – class solidarity.
Sadly Samuel died of a heart attack a short time later. For the other three men I hope this is the beginning of a journey into a lighter future.
The film’s Swedish premiere was on April 8, 2011.