By the time Barbet Schroeder arrived in Uganda to commence filming this unique documentary, Idi Amin was notorious as one of the world’s most vicious dictators, despite presenting an amiable public persona. A megalomaniac who rose to power through a violent uprising, Amin became infamous not only by disappearing and murdering domestic enemies, but by injecting himself into international politics. Amin’s twisted dispatches simultaneously praised the Holocaust and suggested that Amin was a once-in-a-lifetime diplomat capable of solving problems in the Middle East. (Two years after the film was released, Amin provided refuge for Palestinian radicals who hijacked an Air France plane, then endured considerable humiliation when Israeli commandos raided Uganda and rescued the radicals’ hostages.) Schroeder clearly began this project with an agenda, and whether that agenda comprised the goal of capturing a lunatic on film at the height of his influence or the goal of helping turn world opinion against Amin is beside the point. By any measure, this documentary represents activist filmmaking, even though Amin played a crucial role beyond contributing his outlandish screen presence.
By Schroeder’s admission, Amin demanded a significant measure of control over the onscreen content, so only heavily censored versions of the film were shown until after Amin was driven out of Uganda in 1978. Seen today, the unexpurgated version of General Idi Amin Dada sketches a portrait that’s as frightening as it is pathetic. Decked out in military garb and sporting an ever-present smile, except when paranoia renders him nervous and sweaty, Amin expounds on his leadership approach with self-aggrandizing zeal, seemingly unaware of how contradictory and insane his remarks will sound to others. (“I know how to teach the Americans.” ‘Israelis are criminals.” “I would welcome Palestinian hijackers.” “I have toured many countries and brought them together as a family.”)
Amin’s despotic monologues are juxtaposed with facetious spectacles designed by Amin to feed his own fragile ego. He orders citizens and soldiers to mount parades in his honor. He intimidates underlings into losing contests with him, and then he brags about winning. He lectures cabinet members on lacking initiative, and then he makes it clear he expects them to parrot his commands instead of thinking for themselves. In one absurd sequence, he boasts that he has telepathic power over wild animals. Thrilling as it would be to claim that General Idi Amin Dads is a museum piece about the way strongmen once consolidated power, it is in fact still quite relevant, as there’s a direct link from the tyrants of the ancient world to Amin and his contemporaries to the Kim Jong-uns (and, to some degree, the Donald Trumps) of today.
General idi Amin Dada: GROOVY