The 1974 documentary was filmed with the Ugandan dictator’s co-operation, but he wasn’t happy when he heard that a version he hadn’t seen was being shown in Europe
Many films have been made on the infamous Ugandan military dictator, General Idi Amin Dada; both fiction and non-fiction, including the Oscar-winning The Last King of Scotland. But the most intriguing of all is the very first one, an 87-minute-long documentary titled General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait, by the celebrated Swiss filmmaker Barbet Schroeder. Schroeder made this unique film in 1974 with Amin’s consent, and hence called it “a self-portrait”. Interestingly, Amin is also credited for the music in the film.
The prelude to the film is a brief history of Amin coming to power in a coup d’état; his proclamation of economic war by ordering the expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972; the mass murders conducted in full public view to set an example to dissenters; the announcement of his arrival to world leaders, from U.S. President Richard Nixon to Queen Elizabeth II, with hilarious but stupid telegrams —Amin ordered the Queen to send Scottish guards to accompany him to the Commonwealth Games. By 1974, the economic situation had deteriorated considerably, with increased unemployment and high levels of inflation.
At the surface level, the film’s structure is very straightforward: Schroeder and his crew capture Amin going about being the ‘President’ and this footage is interspersed with a voiceover — presumably Schroeder’s — providing important additional information. But the prototype of a dictator is revealed emphatically as we watch Amin make his speeches, showcase his love for animals — he takes the film crew on a boat ride, proudly asking them to film the elephants and crocodiles — mix freely with his people in public gatherings and talk irresponsibly about war and international affairs..
It’s fascinating to see Amin’s simplistic view of problems. In a speech to boxers, he tells them the way to win is to knock out the opponent; to pilots, he says, don’t fly thinking of coming back to the base; he urges his cabinet ministers not to waste time with law and to use shortcuts to deliver justice — and, most importantly, to “teach people to love their leader”. In possibly the most tense sequence in the film, Amin is seen addressing a room full of doctors, giving a brief pep-talk in which he praises their role in maintaining public health and urges them not to drink “because people won’t believe a drunk doctor”. Then, a presumably brave doctor stands up and asks Amin to consult with the leader of the medical association to understand their challenges. The camera focuses on Amin’s face as the smile turns into a menacing frown.
As per Schroeder, many of the public events featured in the documentary were planned and staged specifically for the filming. Amin uses the opportunity to showcase his armed forces by taking the crew to several military training sessions and proudly showing off his tanks, guns and aircraft. But the visuals reveal their inadequate capabilities. In one amusing sequence, Amin makes the crew film a drill designed specifically to demonstrate how his military would conquer the Golan Heights (a region of conflict between Israel and Syria), ordering the camera to film a particular helicopter. In hindsight, the film would prove prophetic; in one sequence, Amin reveals in a sit-down interview that he would welcome Palestinian militants if they were to fly a hijacked Israeli plane to Uganda. This became a reality in 1976 when an Air France plane from Tel Aviv was hijacked and taken to Entebbe.
Screenshot from the documentary.
Evil and naïveté
Despite all the evil on display, it is hard not to notice the ease with which Amin could mingle with his people — there are sequences of him dancing with performers, playing the accordion with a band — and enthrall them with his seemingly popular humour-laced speeches. Like all authoritarian leaders, Amin also believed that he was the chosen one who would lead Uganda to prosperity; he was the most powerful and influential world leader; he worked hard to rise from a poor family to become the saviour. Occasionally, he also comes across as an endearing figure, with his infectious laughter when asked questions such as, “Is it true that you wrote to the Tanzanian Prime Minister that you would have married him if he was a woman,” and with his childlike enthusiasm to show his score at a shooting range. But it is hard to discern if he seriously meant to help when he says he set up a “Save Britain” fund to save the U.K. from financial ruin in 1973, and even harder to predict what would have happened if he had lost in the staged swimming race.
It was probably Amin’s naïveté that convinced him that such a film would help his cause. Schroeder played by Amin’s rules and yet managed to make a clever film with a very small crew and limited resources that would act as a reminder of the devil within every authoritarian leader. But it wasn’t a smooth ride for Schroeder; after realising that a longer version of the film — which he had not seen — was being shown everywhere in Europe, Amin ordered Schroeder to make some cuts. When Schroeder refused to comply, Amin arrested more than 100 French citizens in Uganda, put them in a hotel in Kampala, and asked them to call the director and convince him to make the cuts. Schroeder called this “censor by hostage”. Of course, after Amin lost power and fled to Libya in exile, Schroeder promptly put the deleted parts back into the film. The complete version of this timeless film is currently streaming on MUBI in India.
The Bengaluru-based writer is a theatre artist and documentary filmmaker.
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