General Idi Amin Dada [DVD]
Screenplay : Barbet Schroeder
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1974
The old joke goes something like this:
"Q. If you're on a football team with an 800-pound gorilla, what position do you let him play?"
"A. Any position he wants."
In Barbet Schroeder's 1974 documentary General Idi Amin Dada, the titular dictator, who ruled the small African nation of Uganda from 1971 to 1979, is the 800-pound gorilla, playing any and every position he wants. Mistaken that Schroeder and his small crew were there to make a celebratory portrait of him, Idi Amin gave them free access to his daily routines, which seem to consist of little more than appearing at a series of staged events. Meanwhile, Uganda, a country that had been historically prosperous, was sliding into severe economic decline and rapid inflation, and some 300,000 citizens were being killed by the military.
Idi Amin came into power in 1971, less than a decade after Uganda had become independent from the British, when he staged a military coup and ousted then-Prime Minister Milton Obote, under whom Amin had served as chief of the military. A former heavy-weight boxer with military training in the British army, Amin was a sizable presence, an enormous Nubian who could be affable one moment, and seething the next. In the film, he is almost always depicted as the former, because he knew he was on-camera. The film's subtitle, "A Self-Portrait," is all too appropriate because it never depicts Amin as he truly was. Rather, it depicts him as how he wanted to be seen.
A true narcissist, Idi Amin was so taken with himself that he was incapable of realizing how bad the film ultimately makes him look. Even though it was made with his full cooperation and the final product had his seal of approval--this did, however, require Schroeder to remove roughly two and a half minutes of footage--the "self-portrait" turns out to be an awkward doodle, a undeniably charming and funny, yet ruthless despot's pathetic attempt to pass himself off as a benign populist following the will of the people.
Much of the film consists of interviews with Idi Amin, in which he discusses his assumed popularity, his politics, and his visions for the future. Schroeder, who first emerged as a producer during the French New Wave of the early 1960s, interjects very little of his own sensibility into the film; rather, he allows Idi Amin to speak freely and portray himself as he wishes, which turns out to be the equivalent of digging his own public-relations grave (there is a sparse amount of narration, much of which clearly runs counter to Idi Amin's vision of himself). Where he intended it to be self-serving, the film turned out to be self-defeating.
Ruthlessly anti-Semitic, Idi Amin can only emit a deep, skin-crawling chuckle when Schroeder asks him about his admiration of Hitler and a statement he once made that Hitler had not killed enough Jews. At another point, Idi Amin goes into a long explanation of how Israelis were planning to poison the Nile and how he would welcome Palestinian terrorists if they hijacked a plane and asked to land in Uganda (which is exactly what happened in 1976, and Idi Amin was humiliated when the Israeli army stormed the plane and rescued the hostages right under his nose).
General Idi Amin Dada is filled with moments of sheer absurdity, such as the scene in which Idi Amin is engaged in a playful swim race with several men much younger and more athletic than he. Once they dive in the water, you can't divert your eyes from Idi Amin's spastic swimming style and the fact that, rather than racing in a straight line, he moves diagonally across the pool, recklessly cutting off half of the other swimmers, at one point his flailing arms becoming like weapons. When it's over, all he can do is laugh and declare, "I won," utterly incapable of understanding the absurdity of his "victory." Another scene of note is a meeting with the country's top physicians, in which Idi Amin proves both his intellectual inferiority by rambling pointlessly in a dull lecture style and his thin suppression of anger when the camera closes in on his slowly tightening face when one of the physicians dares to make anything sounding remotely like a critical comment.
Essentially a failed piece of propaganda, General Idi Amin Dada is a fascinating and unnerving look at a mass murderer playing the role of the good leader. Partly out of self-delusion, partly out of willful role-playing, and partly out of sheer hubris, General Idi Amin ruled Uganda for close to a decade, killing hundreds of thousands of people and running a once vibrant economy and society into the ground. In Schroeder's film, he emerges not as the strong, caring leader he so obviously desired to be seen as, but rather as the very portrait of, to use Hannah Arendt's phrase, the banality of evil.
|General Idi Amin Dada Criterion Collection DVD|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment|
|Release Date||May 14, 2002|
| 1.33:1 (Academy Aspect Ratio)|
In the video interview included on this disc, director Barbet Schroeder talks about how viewing General Idi Amin Dada in its original 16mm Ektachrome was a revelation after years of faded, blown-up 35mm prints. The transfer on this disc is just as impressive, with solid, bold colors, fine detail, and just a slight veneer of grain that gives the image a particularly film-like appearance. The MTI Digital Restoration System was used to clean up the image, and, with the exception of a few barely perceptible vertical hairlines, it is almost entirely free of all nicks, scratches, and other artifacts.
| English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural |
The digitally restored monaural soundtrack, mastered at 24-bit from the 16mm magnetic sound master, is crisp and clear.
| Video interview with director Barbet Schroeder |
Recorded exclusively for this DVD in 2001, this intriguing 27-minute video interview is divided into seven chapters in which Schroeder discusses his approach to documentary film, what is was like working with Idi Amin, and his reflections on the film almost three decades later, among other things. Presented in anamorphic widescreen.
Timeline of Ugandan History
Documentation of Idi Amain's requested cuts to the film
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick