General Idi Amin Dada (A Self Portrait)

General Idi Amin Dada (A Self Portrait)
Directed by: Barbet Schroeder

idiamin1.jpgFor every movie I see that is based on a true story, no matter how great that movie is, I often can’t help but wonder if a documentary would have been a more compelling format. We all know that Hollywood movies gloss over details, exagerrate characters, and fabricate plot elements for the sake of convention, and in some cases I will admit that it actually makes for a better film. But there’s no substitute for reality, and the impact of seeing events unfold on screen as they actually happened is impossible to duplicate.

Unfortunately, sometimes a documentary is simply not possible, or the prime opportunity to make one has already been missed. What makes General Idi Amin Dada (A Self Portrait) such a stunning and definitive film is the fact that the French film crew behind it were able to put themselves in the right place at the right time, capturing a prominent world leader at the height of his power, offering a rare insight into a bizarre and dangerous man who made an infamous mark on world history.

Once again, Criterion have given a lesser-known movie the DVD release that it deserves, allowing many more people to appreciate its importance. The movie was first released in 1974, and this DVD version in 2002, but it has become all the more relevant with the recent release of Kevin MacDonald’s The Last King of Scotland, starring Forrest Whittaker in an Oscar-nominated performance as Amin.

Idi Amin seized power in Uganda in 1971, and although he seemed initially to be a respectable leader (he freed some political prisoners and promised to hold elections shortly thereafter), it wasn’t long before it became clear that he was actually a neurotic madman. Amin organized death squads to execute anyone who opposed him, and in 1972 expelled all 50,000 of Uganda’s Asians as a result of instructions he claims to have been given by God in a dream. His regime was responsible for an estimated 300,000 deaths in Uganda.

This documentary is unique in the sense that it had the full co-operation of Idi Amin himself, and features some very candid interviews (he even provides some of his own accordion music as the soundtrack). Imagine a film that could offer a behind the scenes look at the life of a dictator like Hitler or Stalin, and you have an idea of why this is so interesting. Granted, Amin cannot compete on the same level of notoriety as them, but he is probably a much more entertaining character.

idiamin2.jpgThe film is called a “Self Portrait”, and that’s essentially what it is. Anyone hoping for a sweeping biography of Amin’s life, or an elucidation on the events from The Last King of Scotland will probably be disappointed (James McAvoy’s character from the film is a fictional character anyway). Mostly this is a collection of interviews with Amin, footage of public speaking appearances and recordings of various political meetings. Still, it is quite fascinating and humorous at times as well, assuming you have the patience for the film’s slow pace.

When you first see the man talk he appears charming and affable, often joking around with a goofy grin on his face. The support that the Ugandans show him seems genuine and deserving, and he truly seems like a man of the people. Watch him talk for more than a few minutes, however, and you begin to realize that there’s something not quite right about this guy.

Early on, there are some comic moments as Amin is giving the filmmakers a tour of a river where various animals are hanging about, and he waves at an elephant with child-like glee, before declaring that he will ask a particular crocodile to move out of the way of their boat. He claps a few times, and to his dismay the croc does not respond to his request.

As you would probably expect, the truly dark side of Amin is not seen very often in the film, and he seems to be carefully controlling his image, well aware that this is a P.R. opportunity. Many of his public appearances with the Ugandan people were pre-arranged specifically for the movie. For the most part, he is eager to impress viewers with his wisdom and ambition, and rambles on at great length about leadership qualities and his political views.

Occasionally director Barbet Schroeder interjects with some terse lines of narration to inform us of details that contrast Amin’s fun-loving front (to point out that someone seen on screen was killed shortly afterwards, for example). Some disturbing images of public executions do manage to make their way into the movie, however, along with some displays of military training exercises, and Amin making chilling threats to his ministers about what will happen to traitors.

A particularly memorable moment comes near the end of the movie, where Amin is addressing a class of doctors, and one of them mentions the “president” of their organization. He quickly realizes this is a mistake, as no one is allowed to have the title of president in Uganda except for Amin. Amin laughs it off as the man corrects himself, but the camera creeps in on Amin afterwards and his smile disappears as his eyes dart around eerily, leading one to wonder what the man’s fate would be following that day.

The DVD includes a Ugandan historical timeline, and a great interview with director Barbet Schroeder about the making of the film that includes details about cuts that Amin himself had requested to the film (and, in fact, had blackmailed Shroeder into making by threatening to harm French Ugandan citizens). Although General Idi Amin Dada (A Self Portrait) is not the most accessible documentary, it is an amazing piece of history and a great accomplishment in the realm of cinema verite. Anyone curious about the true nature of this simultaneously whimsical and murderous man should definitely check it out. — Sean

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