#157. General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait. Dir., Barbet Schroeder

Barbet Schroeder’s documentary is filled with scene after scene of Idi Amin rambling. During one of them he claims that he once ran one hundred meters in 9.8 seconds. If true, Amin would have set the men’s sprinting record decades before this time was officially recorded by Maurice Greene in 1999.

Compared to Idi Amin’s other lies, this lie about sprinting is annoyingly petty. Schroeder also did not travel to Uganda in 1974 to film Idi Amin exaggerating his athletic abilities. But getting the clearance needed to sit across from Idi Amin with a foreign film crew required a big loss of narrative control. In fact, for any filmmaker that wanted a close-up view of Amin’s paranoia and his brutality to his own citizens, pieces of Schroeder’s documentary would reveal how the cost of getting Amin recorded in conversation is too high. A conversation with Amin is one-sided and you have to listen to him talking about whatever he feels like. Amin also laughs away any question that can be the gateway to him having to talk about his paranoid grip on power — for example, Amin’s nonsensical letter to Kurt Waldheim, Secretary General of the United Nations.

Schroeder must have known Amin would say nothing about the mass torturings and killings at the hands of his regime. If we look at the documentary this way, General Idi Amin Dada is a gamble on patience, where a win for Schroeder comes from moments when small holes are punctured in the wall of Amin’s political double-speak. Being patient with this plan does not look easy. Schroeder’s jaw must have hurt from having to fake a smile through the long tours of Ugandan military exercises. He might even have had to stifle a laugh during the bizarre mock-exercise of General Amin and his army “defeating Israel” in the Golan Heights. The battle in Amin’s mind — not yet spoiled by the Raid on Entebbe in 1976 — must have been heroic. But for Schroeder and film crew, they are standing in a field somewhere in Uganda and watching under-equipped Ugandan soldiers attack a barren hill.

For the most part, General Idi Amin Dada attempts to have the cruelty of Amin’s dictatorship reveal itself in front of the camera. Only infrequently will Schroeder use voice over to explain what we are watching or to add significance with a stated fact. A more observational approach is dropped in the filming of two key scenes. Amin scolds his ministers at a cabinet meeting for the ways their weaknesses become reflections of Uganda’s weakness. Sitting at the end of the table is the foreign minister, Michael Ondoga. In a freeze frame of Ondoga slouching in the aftermath of Amin’s displeasure, Schroeder tells us that Ondoga was found dead in the Nile two weeks later. In the second example, Schroeder provides a voice over to help the audience understand why Amin drops his jocular act so quickly at a meeting with Uganda’s medical association of doctors. Amin was in a happy mood when he opened the meeting with a convoluted speech about health, vitality and service to Uganda, but the question period gives a young doctor the opportunity to commit two cardinal sins: complain that there is growing inequality between private and public health care, and refer to the leader of the medical association as “President”. As Schroeder explains in voice over, Amin drops his smile and stares at the Ugandan doctor with deadly seriousness because only he, General Idi Amin, can be called “President” across all of Uganda.

The joke of the documentary’s subtitle comes from Amin using Schroeder and his film crew to paint a picture of himself being an excellent leader that is, just as importantly, a fun guy. When Amin forgot to be fun or lost the energy to spew lies, Schroeder found a way to keep the camera rolling. These moments are also what Schroeder needs to demonstrate that Amin’s “self-portrait” is a terrifying picture of power. Amin can spend the day waving to elephants and crocodiles as he hosts Schoeder on a boat tour of the Nile, but Schroeder can make us see what is invisible: hundreds of thousands of ordinary Ugandans, terrorized, tortured and killed by General Idi Amin.

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