In January 1971, Idi Amin Dada launched a military coup in his native Uganda, overthrew then-President Milton Obote, and installed himself as the President for Life. When his murderous rule came to an end in spring 1979, he had a laundry list of self-bestowed titles: His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire (CBE) in Afric in General and Uganda in Particular.” He also called himself the uncrowned King of Scotland.
It’s easy to see him as a buffoon, as he most surely was. But he was a dangerous man who held a great deal of power and who was particularly concerned with how he viewed himself and how others viewed him. To that end, in 1974, at the height of his power and, as he saw it, at the start of a life-long role as all of those titles above, director Barbet Schroeder and cinematographer Nestor Almendros flew to Uganda asking if they could film the man as he ruled the country. They were granted wide access to Amin, and Amin used plenty of resources to show himself as a jocular statesman helping post-colonial Africa progress.
Yes, Amin comes across here as a charismatic, funny leader. This is partially because he’s ridiculous — aside from the grandiose titles, he makes sure to boast of even minor but still unbelievable accomplishments, like being the fastest at the 100 meter run — but it’s also because Amin’s natural showmanship is on full display. He knows he’s on camera, and he’s good at pleasantries.
But it is showmanship, and though Amin had a lot of control over the documentary, it is not propoganda. The documentary itself makes it clear that many of the events were staged just for the documentary. We see booming streets of Kampala and a pleased citizenry often showing up en mass to greet their leader. When asked by Schroeder about Amin’s statement that Hitler should have killed more Jews, Amin just laughs and says we need to look to the future, not the past.
Usually Amin stays in character, laughing off the moments when he doesn’t seem to have full control, but we can see moments when this laughter is just barely able to cover his insecurity, and that insecurity is dangerous. For example, Schroeder takes us to a cabinet meeting in which a foreign minister is berated, seemingly with some humor, though the whole thing is ludicrous. Schroeder mentions that the foreign minister turned up dead a few weeks later, body floating in the Nile.
Behind the scenes, we know, things were worse, even as it regards the documentary’s release. The first cut of the film, which ran for an hour in Uganda, pleased Amin. The second cut, which had an additional 30 minutes, infuriated him. He called Schroeder and demanded cuts. When Schroeder refused, Amin actually rounded up approximately 200 French citizens living in Uganda and held them hostage. At this point, Schroeder made the cuts . . . until Amin was ousted.
The documentary is stronger in context, so for me it is important and more satisfying to watch it in conjunction with supplementary materials. On the Criterion Collection release you can hear Schroeder talk about the filmmaking and the incident when Amin threatened the French citizens in Uganda. There’s also a nice, though brief at 16 minutes, overview of Uganda and Amin by Andrew Rice. It would be nice to have some more context, a look at Amin and Uganda from an African, for example, but it still succeeds to give us a larger perspective on this self-portrait.
Amin was a terrifying egotist, situated in power, doing all he could to maintain and distribute even the most paper-thin delusions of grandeur and righteousness. We know of many such leaders in the twentieth century, and one would hope we’d be ushering them to the door in the twenty-first. Alas. This is, I would argue, still essential viewing, and not just for historical purposes.