Wednesday 31 August 2011

One of a kind

General Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait, directed by Barbet Schroeder (1974)

Watching French filmmaker Barbet Schroeder’s 1974 documentary General Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait, two things came to mind. First was an old Mad magazine spoof of Amin titled ‘Idiot And Mean’, in which, I believe the 1970s dictator of Uganda was visited by the crew of the original Star Trek television series, and second the fact that the word Dada, while literally part of Amin’s name, also was an early 20th century arts movement that embraced the meaningless of all art. The first point is obvious, because the name accorded Amin fits, and so does the second point fit, since the real Amin, as portrayed in this film, seems actually meaningless.

He is now years dead, having been ousted to live out his life in exile in Saudi Arabia, and the anomic documentary oddly seems perfectly apropos of the man and the movement. One might say that General Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait is, while not a great film, the first actually successful Dadaist work of art ever. Yet, I am more drawn to the first point, the ‘Idiot And Mean’ riff, because, in watching this film, one must admit that, while the two words describe Amin to a proverbial T, the 92-minute long film shows that the word affable should also have been included.

That’s because Amin comes off as a very likeable person, at least in his best moments, but like the girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead, when Amin was bad he was horrid, and the film gives glimpses of this, even though Amin does his best to destroy this. When the film premiered, it was actually taken as a comedy, and Amin was furious, and threatened to kill all French citizens living in Uganda unless Schroeder cut requested parts. Schroeder did, but restored the film once Amin went into exile. The whole project was apparently Amin’s idea - a sort of vanity hagiography because he felt he was not respected in the West.

In it, we see all sorts of nutty things, such as Amin’s anti-semitism, his planned invasion of Israel, his delusions, his staging of events for the film, his love of The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion - the notorious anti-semitic fraud, and his alienation and manipulation of his countrymen, who clearly fear him, yet recognise him as a buffoon. Yet, we also see him kind to his 18 children, playing musical instruments, laughing with people as he dances at assorted towns, and exhorting his ministry cabinet to do things on their own accord. We also read bizarre telegrams he sent to many world leaders, and see him clearly lying about his exploits in World War II, when he never served in that conflict. He also claims mystic powers, such as a divination of the date and method of his death; but he never reveals it.

Yet, the simple truth is, love him or revile him, Amin dominates the film, not just in sheer minutes pent on camera, but by owning the screen with his charm, smile, and with his wide grin, hearty laugh, and bright pink fingernails against his dark brown fingers. Schroeder occasionally narrates inserts into the film to guide viewers - the most memorable one stating that one of the cabinet ministers seen on screen, in an often hilarious cabinet meeting straight out of a Marx Brothers film, was, two weeks later, thrown to the crocodiles for his poor work and supposedly plotting against Amin. But, again, every so often comes a truth, such as when Amin, in his own delusional pomp, states he is not a capitalist nor a communist and that he, and the world, should take the best from both. The lesson? Even idiots can sometimes stumble upon profundity.

But, that’s about all the film offers. It is not artful, it is not deep, it is not well made, and Schroeder never prods Amin at any depth. Yet, somehow it’s a good film, all on the back of Amin and his oddities. Néstor Almendros’s cinematography is pedestrian, at best, and in one scene Amin actually commands him to shoot a shot of a helicopter coming in. In another he actually predicts a black US President, almost three and a half decades before it happened, and in yet another scene he foresees the modern suicide bomber as a weapon of war, so, in a perverse way he was sort of prescient. General Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait, in some ways, is a time capsule. For those of us growing up in the 1970s, he was an almost weekly staple of the nightly news, for one outrageous stunt or another, as well as the fact that he engineered the slaughter of nearly half a million people in a nation of only ten million. Yet it somehow captures one, and sends one back in time, to relive it as if happening afresh. Schroeder deserves plaudits for the film for, despite Amin’s thumb on it, and his own flaws, it does what all worthwhile documentaries does: it tells a story that could only be told once, for Amin was, despite claims to the contrary, one of a kind, and anything but your run-of-the-mill despot. And, I say this only as a man never under his rule: in a strange way this film almost makes one miss the big thug.

I wrote almost.

© by Dan Schneider


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The Times BFI 53rd London Film Festival

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