General Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait (1974) dir Barbet Schroeder
By Blair Stewart
In 1974 a documentary crew including acclaimed filmmaker Barbet Schroeder and cameraman Nestor Almenderos went down to Uganda and recorded a murderous fool. Said fool was General Idi Amin, a man whose reign in his prosperous land cost thousands of lives while he mugged for the camera and waved at crocodiles he'd feed his enemies to.
As we are intially charmed by Amin's charismatic presence layers are unwound of Amin's true nature beyond the joviality, the touchstone of Forrest Whitaker's performance as Amin in "The Last King of Scotland". After being put into a position of military power by president Milton Obote (himself corrupt too, sadly) despite contrary proof of his competence, Idi ousted Obote in a coup d'etat and started kicking Uganda down a few notches. Along with unabashed cronism for his military buddies receiving government positions, Amin expelled Jews and Asians (80% of Uganda's wealth and trade) and culled his countrymen while making outlandish statements to the world. Before Amin went into forced exile, Schroeder won the documentarian lottery in sitting down with the dictator in 1974 for interviews and a staged highlight tour of the land.
As the interviewer asks about bizarre love letters to fellow world leaders and his anti-semitic stance based upon crackpot theories, the General laughs and jokes. The punchline was Uganda.
During these interviews, two crucial moments play out that sees beyond the facade of Amin. In one, we sit in on a cabinet meeting as Amin blathers on about his favorite subject, the importance of Ugandans loving him, when he accuses the Minister of Foreign Affairs of dissent. On the reaction shot of said Minister, Schroeder uses a freeze-frame to tell us this man will be killed within a fortnight. The effect on the viewer is no different than the Minister being executed right in his seat. In another passage Amin is lecturing Ugandan surgeons on profiteering amongst their ranks when a brave fellow representing the surgeons corrects him on who he should direct his concerns to. The expressions on the faces surrounding this man, along with the unsettling close-up of Amin listening, is ghoulish.
Barbet Schroeder has led a charmed life in cinema. Notable stateside for his critical and box office successes with "Reversal of Fortune" and "Single White Female", Schroeder had previously found international acclaim in the 1970's with the the Pink Floyd alligned "The Valley (Obscurred by Clouds)" and "More". He was a contemporary of the French New Wave directors as he has produced numerous works of Eric Rohmer, and now still finds time to act in films like "The Darjeeling Limited". His direction in "Idi Amin" is invisible outside of a few moments due to the control granted to his subject.
Unsurprisingly upon viewing an early cut of the documentary Amin had a group of French citizens in Uganda held hostage until Schroeder made changes to please the General. Only after Amin was run out of Uganda in 1979 did the film return to its correct version. Idi Amin spent his last days secluded in Saudi Arabia beyond justice, driving luxury cars and eating fast food. This film remains as meagre punishment.