The old joke goes something like this: “Q. If you’re on a football team with an 800-pound gorilla, what position do you let him play? A. Any position he wants.”
In Barbet Schroeder’s 1974 documentary General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait (Général Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait), the titular dictator, who ruled the small African nation of Uganda from 1971 to 1979, is the 800-pound gorilla, playing any and every position he wants. Mistaken that Schroeder and his small crew were there to make a celebratory portrait of him, Idi Amin gave them free access to his daily routines, which seem to consist of little more than appearing at a series of staged events. Meanwhile, Uganda, a country that had been historically prosperous, was sliding into severe economic decline and rapid inflation, and some 300,000 citizens were being killed by the military.
Idi Amin came into power in 1971, less than a decade after Uganda had become independent from the British, when he staged a military coup and ousted then-Prime Minister Milton Obote, under whom Amin had served as chief of the military. A former heavy-weight boxer with military training in the British army, Amin was a sizable presence, an enormous, garrulous man who could be affable one moment and seething the next. In the film, he is almost always depicted as the former because he knew he was on-camera. The film’s subtitle, A Self-Portrait, is all too appropriate because it never depicts Amin as he truly was. Rather, it depicts him as how he wanted to be seen, and the film is most fascinating when it shows us the cracks in his performance, where he is unable to contain his anger and paranoia.
A true narcissist, Idi Amin was so taken with himself that he was incapable of realizing how bad the film ultimately makes him look. Even though it was made with his full cooperation and the final product had his seal of approval—this did, however, require Schroeder to remove roughly two and a half minutes of footage from three different parts of the film, all of which was immediately restored once he was deposed in 1979—the “self-portrait” turns out to be an awkward doodle, a undeniably charming and funny, yet ruthless despot’s pathetic attempt to pass himself off as a benign populist following the will of the people.
Much of the film consists of interviews with Idi Amin, in which he discusses his assumed popularity, his politics, and his visions for the future. Schroeder, who first emerged as a producer during the French New Wave of the early 1960s, interjects very little of his own sensibility into the film; rather, he allows Idi Amin to speak freely and portray himself as he wishes, which turns out to be the equivalent of digging his own public-relations grave (there is a sparse amount of narration, much of which clearly runs counter to Idi Amin’s vision of himself, such as when the narrator informs us that the throngs of adoring Ugandans cheering his arrival via helicopter were staged for the cameras). Where he intended the film to be self-serving, it turned out to be self-defeating.
Ruthlessly anti-Semitic, Idi Amin can only emit a deep, skin-crawling chuckle when Schroeder asks him about his admiration of Adolf Hitler and a statement he once made that Hitler had not killed enough Jews. At another point, Idi Amin goes into a long explanation of how Israelis are planning to take over all the holy cities in the world (based on a fake Zionist manual produced in Russia in 1901 as anti-Jewish propaganda that was later taught in schools in Nazi Germany) and how he would welcome Palestinian terrorists if they hijacked a plane and asked to land in Uganda (which is exactly what happened in 1976, and Idi Amin was humiliated when the Israeli army stormed the plane and rescued the hostages right under his nose). He also evinces no real understanding of economics, as he states authoritatively that the country is following no one policy, but rather drawing freely from both capitalism and socialism, whatever that entails.
General Idi Amin Dada is filled with many such absurd moments, such as the scene in which Idi Amin is engaged in a playful swim race with several men much younger and more athletic than he. Once they dive in the water, you can’t divert your eyes from Idi Amin’s spastic swimming style and the fact that, rather than racing in a straight line, he moves diagonally across the pool, recklessly cutting off half of the other swimmers, his flailing arms becoming like weapons. When it’s over, all he can do is laugh and declare, “I won,” utterly incapable of understanding the ridiculousness of his “victory.” Another scene of note is a meeting with the country’s top physicians, in which Idi Amin proves both his intellectual inferiority by rambling pointlessly in a dull lecture style and his thin suppression of anger when the camera closes in on his slowly tightening face when one of the physicians dares to make anything sounding remotely like a critical comment.
Essentially a failed piece of propaganda, General Idi Amin Dada is a fascinating and unnerving look at a mass murderer playing the role of the good leader. Partly out of self-delusion, partly out of willful role-playing, and partly out of sheer hubris, General Idi Amin ruled Uganda for close to a decade, killing hundreds of thousands of people and running a once vibrant economy and society into the ground. In Schroeder’s film, he emerges not as the strong, caring leader he so obviously desired to be seen as, but rather as the very portrait of, to use Hannah Arendt’s immortal phrase, the banality of evil.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (3.5)
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