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General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait (Barbet Schroeder) 1974


    Barbet Schroederís 1974 documentary General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait is a mind-bogglingly damaging look at one of the 20th centuryís most reviled dictators when you consider it was made with the willing cooperation of its subject. Set a few years after Idi Amin overthrew the Ugandan government in 1971, the film follows the tyrant around for a few days as he brags about the economic liberation that he has brought his countrymen and demonstrates the way that he runs his government and army. Pompously convinced that his repressed people love him, and all too willing to have any dissenters murdered, the physically imposing ex-heavyweight champion comes off as a narcissistic (note how he always looks for the camera before talking) buffoon that seems completely unaware of how idiotic he seems. He babbles endlessly about his miniscule armyís plans to overtake the Golan Heights, and when he presents a demonstration of his armyís might, he pauses to make sure the cameraman photographs a passing helicopter. Other scenes show him blatantly putting on a show as he dances with his people and inspects arms in front of the camera that he had captured years earlier. At his most arrogant, he speaks of his prophetic dreams, which have told him when he will die and predestined his rise to power. Itís only once you consider the context that the film takes place in, and realize that this monster was responsible for over 300,000 Ugandan deaths, that he becomes a scary figure.


    Schroeder was apparently attracted to this subject by news reports of Idi Aminís bizarre telegrams sent to world leaders. A few examples are quoted during the film, such as one sent to the head of the UN that praises Hitlerís treatment of the Jews, but criticizes him for not having killed more. Another baffling sequence concerns Idi Aminís insistence that he has acquired top-secret Israeli documents. Upon examining it, the filmmakers discover that heís taking phony Nazi propaganda as military intelligence. Surely though, the filmís most stunning set piece has to be a filmed cabinet meeting, in which Idi Aminís inane and insane platitudes (Amin on justice for treason: ďAnybody found is a spy, his case must be dealt with with military tribunals. Even military tribunal should not waste time of making law all day discussing about one person who is a spy. Must be shortcut!Ē) are copied down by his followers. He reveals himself here as an obsessively controlling micromanager, laying down ridiculous rules (Miss three meetings, and youíre kicked out of government) that show his complete unwillingness to trust even those closest to him. Throughout the film, what stuns most is the megalomaniacal streak that runs through its subject. Idi Aminís behavior shows that he obviously expected the film to have a positive influence on global perception of him. That it has such a resoundingly opposite effect turns the film into a fascinating historical document and an absurd portrait of fascist power run amok.


* * * 1/2 


Jeremy Heilman