Gnral Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait (1974) (Barbet Schroeder)
In anticipation of a career best perfomance by Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland, I hunted down the Criterion of this remarkably pieced together composite of General Idi Amin Dada, the forgotten Ugandan tyrant who seized power in the early 70s and ruled it with a murderous fist until his eventual ouster. The records speak for itself. The genocide, the corruption and the paranoid executions of his confidants find its way into the documentary but Barbet Schroeder's unique and darkly humourous focus always stays on the hauntingly paradoxical look at the avuncular disposition of the despicable despot.
Essentially, and with the need to be succinct, the General comes across as a child trapped in the mans body. His small-minded view of the world, his brio for military games and his risible ballroom antics show an incomprehensible rationale for his iron grip. His scheming seductions to the media and to the outside world come through in full force as he looks for the camera before speaking. Idi Amin does not deny his Machiavellian approach to establishing his order but chooses not to dwell on them as he thinks his answers through carefully and elaborates on his imagined successes. Often, he trails off into a deranged rail on foreign countries and other African establishments but conducts himself with a manner of undeniable presence thats as compelling as it is repelling.
Like a playground bully, Idi Amin is competitive and largely insecure. He is blissfully unaware of his own peoples struggles and abhorrence for his policies. Everyone else except the emperor realises that the emperor has no clothes on. His need for validation from his people belies the issues of trust that he has for those around him as he administers his version of tough love, much like a child and his pets. But ultimately it is seen that he has become out of touch with the very citizens he boasts that he goes out and gregariously meets each day.
The Iranian born director of German extraction is ironically simpatico with Idi Amins preference of people as Schroeder prods him ever so gently with nervous laughter, like one might daringly try to interest a grumpy Doberman in a game of catch. Schroeders discernment of the situation he was in with the vain General and his eventual manipulation of him allowed his documentary crew access to a conclave of the states ministers and military higher-ups. It is where Idi Amin, although aware of the cameras burning gaze, warns death on spies and warns removal of inept ministers, leading to Schroeders unnerving revelation as his camera lingers on the cold, brutality of a killer.
Much of the documentarys humour is inherent. Schroeder does not make any allusions to satire, or even impose a caricature of the man. No, Idi Amin does that all by himself. Armed with a razor sharp wit, he jokes with rooms of people, even resorting to self-deprecating humour that really only he could make. A natural charmer, he comes across early on as the jovial sort, with a disarming innocence thats staggeringly shattered when he takes up arms and spews anti-Israeli sentiments. While extolling the virtues of his mind-boggling economic and military policies, he does it without understanding how and why they do not work. And no one dares to advise him on that either. Very telling is the scene on the boat when he asks the camera crew if he should ask the crocodile to leave.
With an ambition the size of Napoleon, Idi Amin considered himself a major leader in the world stage but theres something so terribly amateurish about his regime, much like many other African regimes back then. We dont get to know his precise political thought, he does mention not entirely following the rigidness of communism and capitalism but all it does is underline his resolve to control his country by his terms. Although he lived mainly through the atavistic displays of force, he did show some progressive ideas such as implementing more women in the managerial workforce, albeit only in the hospitality industry. Mixing his awe of modernisation (risking his countrys reserves) and grandiosity with his reverence for his regions tradition, Idi Amin saw himself as a revolutionary.
The back-story of this documentary is almost as gripping as the film itself. Schroeder befriended Idi Amin, although a tenuous relationship, he gets him to open up about the things that he wouldnt tell his own cabinet of ministers. He partakes with the General in admittedly staged scenes of overt celebrations and letting him direct himself in exchange for getting him in every shot aside from the scenery (masterfully photographed by Nstor Almendros).
After the filming, Schroeder found himself in a predicament when word got back to Idi Amin after its initial release in France and London that its audience found it to be funny like a comedy. When his demands for cuts were not met, Idi Amin rounded up the French living in Uganda and threatened their lives if Schroeder did not relent. And of course, he did. Thankfully it was restored after Idi Amins exile from the country. Even under the restrictive guise of a self-portrait, Schroeder masterfully instills a subtext that even before the cuts, Idi Amin could not properly discern because of his ego. The awkward gazes and listless looks of his employees and citizens are an inside joke for us but a reality for the megalomaniac. Schroeder lets Idi Amin present to us his own insanity within the smiles and guffaws.
Even as the film fails to fully structure the whys and hows of Idi Amins maniacal views on the world, it does hint at the harsh bleakness of colonialism leaving a bloodstain with each of Idi Amins actions. But what makes this documentary much more compelling than any straight observation of a tyrannical authoritarian is its own fascination with the subject. Captivated by Idi Amins charisma, and the creeping sense of dread when the truth is finally mined, the crew found a goldmine of ideas relating to violent dictators throughout history as this documentary shaped up to be a portrait of not just Idi Amin but of all rulers. Controversial and foreboding scenes of him inviting Palestinian terrorists bore fruit years after the release of the film and a chilling symmetry with George W. Bushs war on terror is gleaned when Idi Amin exclaimed that dreams vaticinated his wars.
Rating: 4 out of 5