A brash an entirely self-confident ruler allowed himself to be the subject of a documentary film. Despite his nation’s economic woes and the declining stature of his nation in the view of the world, the ruler remains resolute in avowing with conviction that his nation is thriving and it’s entirely his doing. No, we’re not talking about some deranged half-wit with a cheap spray-on tan and gaudy comb-over. We’re talking about Idi Amin, the despotic dictator of Uganda from 1971-1979. Amin was the subject of the documentary General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait by French filmmaker Barbet Schroder. It’s a fascinating and candid look at one of history’s greatest monsters, an egomaniacal madman responsible for untold deaths constantly smiling and playing for the camera. Now this documentary that lays bare the DNA of despots everywhere is a part of the Criterion Collection, and the film remains horrifying and enthralling.
Schroder was given unprecedented access to Amin and his regime, but opted for a more hands off approach to the documentary, hence the “Self Portrait” aspect of its title. Instead of taking the time to debunk the outlandish self-aggrandizement that makes up a majority of Idi Amin’s screen time, Schroder allows Amin to create such a large and unsustainable myth that it buckles under its own weight. Amin, often boasting directly at the camera, orchestrates massive military training exercises to boast of the nation’s strength, which he sees as a direct reflection of himself.
Of course, the most interesting thing to occur with General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait came after the film was completed and playing in theaters in London. Amin sent a spy to the theater to take detailed notes on how he was depicted. The Ugandan dictator took exception with some elements of the film, writing a letter to Schroder demanding that two and a half minutes be excised from the film. Schroder, a strong-headed French artist, refused. What followed was the despotic Amin rounding up all of the French nationals in Uganda, estimated at around 200 people, and threatened to execute them if the footage was not removed. Schroder relented, of course, but made sure to reinsert the footage back into his finished film once Idi Amin and his brutal regime was deposed.
Thanks in part to Schroder’s film, Idi Amin was seen as much of a legitimate despot and not just a boisterous international laughing stock. Part of the lasting legacy of colonialism was the view that eccentric leaders to emerge from the ashes of fallen colonies were these harmless buffoons, a modest way to simply ignore the human right atrocities that lingered as an aftereffect of colonial rule. Amin, like Mobutu Sese Seko, are evil men that rule with pure brute force and rely on a cult of personality to envelop them in a world of fearful acclaim or power hungry sycophants.
General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait also introduced the despot into the world of pop culture in a way that wasn’t common for African dictators. In the halls of Queen Carlotta’s castle in John Waters’ demented masterwork Desperate Living, a portrait of Amin can be seen lining the walls alongside the hateful visages of Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson – the joke being that Carlotta idolized such men of depraved evil. One of the great actors of his generation, Forrest Whittaker, took home an Oscar for his portrayal of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Amin would be portrayed by Prince Hughes in The Naked Gun; the film’s opening scene featuring a cabal of villainous world leaders plotting against America. The musician Chuck E. Weiss would have an oddball song called “Do You Know What I Idi Amin?” on his album Extremely Cool.
All this, mind you, is part of the legacy of a brutal dictator who killed thousands, circulated tales of his own cannibalism, and offered refuge to a hijacked airliner full of Israeli passengers, resulting in numerous deaths and the escalation of international tensions. Idi Amin was a monster, and sadly this monster spent out the rest of his days not in a prison cell for his crimes against humanity but in exile under the protection of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, most likely a reward for his anti-Israeli actions. General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait sees Barbet Schroder using his camera to allow Amin to frame himself in any way he sees fit. It’s an illuminating examination of the egotism behind evil. Given a blank canvas, Amin can only create a self-portrait that is of a brutal and ugly monster yearning to be loved, painted devilish red and dripping with the blood of the innocent.