General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait

Studio: Criterion

Jan 01, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

People like to compare our current "leader" to Hitler, and not without cause, but if you ask me, he's more like Idi Amin: bumbling strongman, intermittently charming liar, fascinating mess, likely secret cannibal. Watching Barbet Schroeder's legendary documentary on Uganda's general-turned-dictator, filmed with the full permission of its preening egomaniac subject, the parallels are downright eerie. Maybe someone should check the Potomac River for fresh bodies, just in case, or at least make sure there isn't something "special" about Trump's daily McDonald's intake.

General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait follows Amin through rallies, military maneuvers, and other displays of Ugandan might and pride, all of which were planned especially for the cameras. Amin even takes Schroeder on a boat ride along the Nile, where he seems to think he's communicating directly with the elephants and crocodiles. It's all darkly funny, except it's hard to laugh knowing the death toll: depending on whose figures you trust, somewhere between 80,000 and 500,000 Ugandans died as a direct result of Amin's time in power, many of them killed as a means of quashing dissent. There's a steady, creeping undercurrent of oppression and violence throughout, an acerbic voiceover occasionally dropping in to let us know that a cabinet member had been killed in the weeks since filming, or that a conference with some of the country's top doctors was tense because one of the doctors deigned to call the head of their organization its President (in Amin's Uganda, only he was allowed the title of President).

We're fortunate to not be in this position yet on this side of the pond, but Uganda's story must be viewed as a cautionary tale. Like Trump, Amin was fascinated with strongman leaders both past and then-present; his foreign policy was guided less by what was good for Uganda, and more by whom he felt had wronged him. Everyone from Benny Hill to Saturday Night Live was having a good laugh satirizing Amin for a good long time, downplaying the severity of the danger; a lot of countries were plenty of tolerant of Amin's dangerous bluster until well after it was too late.

With all this in mind, General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait probably isn't as entertaining to audiences now as it was upon its initial release: if the laughs were too dark then, time certainly hasn't lightened them much. Still, it's a fascinating, startling work. Not too long ago, it would seem almost unfathomable that it got made at all, but being in the middle of a national reality show has a funny way of making a lot of previously inconceivable things believable.


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