Wednesday, August 29, 2007

General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait (1974)

Or, an illustration of the dangers of blind hubris. This documentary about Ugandan dictator Idi Amin had to meet with his approval before being released, so one wonders if the somber narration, clearly working at cross-purposes to much of the footage as it discusses persons disappeared and the illegitimacy of some of Amin's beliefs, was added after showing Amin a cut of which he would be more approving. After viewing the film, I don't think I'd be surprised either way -- narration aside, Amin does a pretty good job of hoisting himself by his own petard. It's clear he's micromanaged this project (even creating the music) in order to put up the best image possible of both himself and his country. As such, we're given glimpses of his private life (something it would be unheard of for any other dictator to reveal to the Western world at the time) as he engages in a swimming competition with some subordinates and spends time with his children; meanwhile, his country's unshakeable confidence and might is demonstrated through public dances, musical performances and many military displays. Yet there's always the unmistakable air of manipulation, which often manifests in unexpected ways. In particular, the scene where Amin lands in a small plane and is greeted by his garrison calls to mind the opening sequence of Triumph of the Will, another infamously stage-managed bit of film in support of an evil man. The multiple sequences with Amin speaking to the camera also betray him -- as he rambles on, he reveals his raging paranoia (manifested in his "prescient" dreams), his ruthless anger and his myriad prejudices. The last point creates the film's point in a nutshell -- Amin speaks of driving out the Asian population of Uganda so African business can prosper, but footage of the Ugandan capital shows anything but prosperity. It's indicative of the things, the horrors and injustices, that refuse to be hidden; the jovial, charismatic public face Amin puts up demonstrates why he won over the populace, but the darker demons underneath that can't be completely hidden demonstrate why he was eventually chased out of the country. Rare is the ability to see such a paradox walking and talking in front of you, and Barbet Schroeder captures it admirably. He came neither to bury nor praise, but simply to watch one man bury himself in trying to praise eveything he stands for.

Grade: B


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