What do you get when you combine brutality and star power? If you are director in Barbet Schroeder and your subject / “co-director” is the late Ugandan dictator Idi Amin; the result is “Idi Amin Dada” an engrossing self-portrait of one of the 20th century’s worst, and most intriguing dictator.
Amin is not only the star of the documentary, he is also credited as co-director. The film, showing Amin giving speeches, attending festivals, giving insights into his rather paranoid psyche (particularly his virulent Anti-Semitism) is not that much different than what Ugandans saw everyday during Amin’s rule on the state run TV station.
But, this film is no pro-Amin propaganda film. The humor, is unintentional, and often at Amin’s expense. One of the most memorable scenes is where Amin is watching the army perform military training, using a child’s slide. Then there is the scene where Amin dressed in combat fatigues leads troops over a small hill, preparing for war with Israel over the Golan Heights. The scene looks like a bad war re-enactment produced by a community theater.
And of course no dictator is complete without the masses. Amin’s “masses” are about 40 villagers who are forced to cheer for him as his helicopter lands. Of course, sometimes the scene goes wrong for a director; and just as Amin’s helicopter lands; the crowd scurries for cover, hiding from the massive plume of dust caused by the landing. Ah, so much for a grand entrance.
Above all, Amin talks in the film. He gives really long lectures. I could sum it up in a nutshell: Women need to get up at 5:00 AM to take care of the house and everyone must love the leader! And when he speaks about donating food for “starving British people”; the real director couldn’t tell if Amin was being facetious, or if he was serous.
The early 1970s was a period of transition for the Third World, with colonial rule still in recent living memory; the United States and the USSR were arming and wooing governments in Africa and Asia, and using them as proxies in the larger Cold War between the two super powers. And Amin openly talks politics.
His favorite subject is Israel. Interestingly, the Israeli as well as the British government were initially supporters of Amin. When they dropped their support, Amin began to throw his support behind groups like Black September, the terrorist organization that killed 11 Israeli athletes in Munich.
Amin also admired Hitler and speaks about how the Holocaust was “justified.”
Besides his repugnant views on Holocaust; Amin also talks about more localized events. He honestly sees Uganda, with its one air force plane as a potential military super power; and as a leading light for post Colonial states. He speaks with genuine enthusiasm of his wish to teach African-Americans Swahili.
One of the most iconic and ironic scenes is one that is not in the DVD, but a photo from the DVD extras. The scene shows Amin, who was raised in British occupied Uganda, and who became the highest ranking African in the British Army, being carried in his chair by four white men; just like the British colonialists use to make the Africans do.
But, history and the link between colonial dictatorship and the dictatorship of newly independent countries is not the main theme of the film. The Ugandan people are not the subject of the film, with the exception that they are props for Amin's rule. Just as Amin is able to dominate a conversation, a room, his country; he dominates the film. And while he most certainly was a cruel and murderous dictator; he has a magnetic personality, and very much loves being the center of attention-whether it is playing the accordion at a party, leading a traditaional folk dance; or "winning" a swimming contest; due to everyone else doing their obvious best to let him win.
Amin is at his most charismatic giving a tour of a wild life preserve lake. In the extra, we learn that so many people were killed during Amin’s rule that their bodies would plug up the dams, the crocs not able to digest all the bodies thrown into the rivers. It is a chilling anecdote.
Although it is cliché, Amin loves the camera, and the camera loves him. I sort of imagine that if Amin didn’t die in exile, and was actually tried for the mass crimes he committed against his people, particularly the mass killing of members of other ethnic groups and political opponents, all one would need to do is to get him in front of a camera and he’d probably confess it all. And that would have been a sequel worth seeing.