Filmmaker Barbet Schroeder (Reversal of Fortune) has always been fascinated with non-fiction, and after reading some bizarre telegrams that General Idi Amin Dada had been sending to various world leaders, he determined that Amin would make a fine subject. He just needed a gimmick to get inside the boundaries to film the evil dictator, responsible for thousands of whimsical executions and the destruction of Uganda's once stable economy.
Schroeder's idea was to approach the general with the idea of filming a self-portrait, allowing Amin to remain the sole focus of the film and to reveal whatever he wanted—a professional home movie, in a sense. Vanity works on such men of power; they get puffed up, assume they can control the project and create a testament to their greatness to cause more publicity and affection—so Amin is no different that American politicians (even similar to President Nixon, who received one of Amin's famous telegrams addressed "My dear brother" in sympathy for Watergate).
Had Schroeder filmed his 1974 documentary about Nixon instead of Amin, we would have seen our President virtually naked and would have heard all the tapes with the expletive deleteds all intact—pretty ugly stuff, but nothing hidden. Much is due to Amin's vanity and naivete.
General Idi Amin Dada plays much like Blood in the Face, a chillingly intimate 1991 documentary about American neo Nazis that portrays their evil with dead pan humor. Both films allow their subjects to go off on their own tangents, and the evil that lies within manifests itself naturally with insightful and frightening dark humor. Schroeder provides opening background snippets of Uganda's progress since its independence from Britain in 1962. After a decade of relative wealth (during which Asians owned approximately 80% of the retail stores), the country is plunged into economic chaos when General Amin conducts economic war and orders all Asians to leave—triggering massive inflation and extreme difficulty just finding basic supplies like sugar and flour. Reports of mass executions and hundreds of �missing persons� are underscored with fleeting images of military executions.
At first General Idi Amin Dada doesn't seem like the horrible evil guy we've heard about. He's more like a lovable uncle; he hosts us on a guided tour guide of his beloved country, telling a few stories from his past, and dancing to the African jazz tunes of the Revolutionary band (eerily named "Suicide").
Among the more scenic afternoons is spent on a boat cruising the Nile through lush greenery near Murchison Falls where hippos, elephants, and crocodiles gather. Amin especially is enamored of the large number of crocodiles, gleefully clapping his hands to encourage them to move, and boasting that the largest population of these reptiles on the planet resides in one Ugandan cove where the females lay their eggs. Although not included on the movie, the director's interview on the Criterion Collection DVD reveals that the crocodiles were well fed with executed humans, so it's no wonder that Amin has such affection for them.
Before long the benevolent tour guide shows his dark side, and comes across like a caricature of the evil dictator he truly is. Amin innocently invokes boxers in training to always go for the knockout to guard themselves against bad referees, and this philosophy is often repeated. Juxtaposed with the boxing speech is a scene of the khaki clad leader at a military rifle range, where a sign "Shoot to Kill" is prominently posted and the giddy dictator delights with "head kills."
Further insanity is established with scenes of paratroopers training on children's slides and jumping all of one foot off a platform, naval training in land-locked Uganda in Lake Victoria, and a simulated attack on the Golan Heights in the heart of Uganda.
Amin goes wacko when discussing Israel. Even though he claims friendship with Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir and fondly recalls his paratrooper training days in Israel, Amin has banished all Israelis from Uganda and brings out an old 1901 propaganda pamphlet (required Nazi reading during Hitler's reign) claiming that the Jews want to take over Mecca and Medina and that they plan to poison the Nile. Of course, this nonsense explains his mistrust of Israelis and justifies his military plans to take back the Golan Heights and go to war with Israel with paratroopers and suicide squadrons. When asked about his quote that, "Hitler didn't kill enough Jews in the War," Amin laughs, but does not deny that he said it.
The one scene that is semi-staged is notable. Although the footage continually framing General Amin captures the essence of his character, Schroeder wanted to show something about the nature of his political leadership as well. He convinces Amin to hold a cabinet meeting to demonstrate to the world that he is not the dictator that the world perceives him to be; rather, this is his chance to portray himself as a concerned democratic leader. The reluctant Amin agrees, and stages the meeting with his ministers. The open forum becomes a complete sham, as the dictator whips out his seven points and lectures his ministers—no one else speaks, and their body language expresses tension and fear. And why not? The foreign affairs minister will be executed by firing squad within two weeks, his bloody body dumped into the Nile.
The cabinet meeting highlights the film and approaches the same humor as Woody Allen's Bananas, where the new dictator declares that all citizens must wear their underwear on the outside to allow for inspections. He wants women to "pull up their socks," outlaws mini-skirts, speaks at length of how the people must grow to love their leaders, and gives out his phone number (2241) so his ministers can call him any time of the day to find out what they must do. Amin's concept of democracy resembles that of a kindergarten teacher, except he's gone to the far dark side—he even instructs them that they will be kicked out if they miss three meetings. We're not sure if that means a visit to the firing squad—he did execute at least one television cameraman for showing him in an unflattering manner, and later executed the editor when he found out that the editor was responsible for the unwanted juxtaposition.
Knowing how ruthless and psychotic General Idi Amin Dada is makes Schroeder's documentary all the more compelling. Due to the "self portrait" constraints that require Amin's hefty personage to be framed in every shot, the film visually plods along monotonously at times, much like the nightly television programs that feature the dictator. He wants the people to love him, so Amin continually attempts to put his best foot forward publicly. He just doesn't realize that he can't help but step in elephant dung when he commands such an evil government.
After hearing that Parisian audiences were laughing at the documentary, Amin examined the film closer and found 2 minutes that he wanted cut. When Schroeder refused to cut it initially, Amin made an offer he couldn't refuse. The malevolent dictator rounded up all French citizens in Kampala into a hotel and called the film director to force the issue. Knowing the fate of others in disfavor, Schroeder bowed to the hostage situation and cut the offending footage, which has been restored in the Criterion DVD release. Still missing is the final voiceover that expresses the theme of the intriguing film, that originally played during the haunting final close-up of the shifty eyed dictator:
After a century of colonization, let us not forget that it is partially a deformed image of ourselves Idi Amin Dada reflects back at us.