Sunday, May 18, 2008

[DVD] Général Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait (1974)

After watching this documentary on Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, you'd come to think that Forest Whitaker's award winning portrayal in The Last King of Scotland had given the military general more intellect, more cunning and definitely a more clear cut look at the nature of the man's evils. But in fact, from what you can glean from this documentary, he seemed to be more fuddy duddy, with surprising charisma whether or not due to his public demeanour, and his semi-illiterateness in the English Language (again, Whitaker made him sound grammatical).

Movies about political leaders are not new, and lately there's one that's also sanctioned by a leader himself, a made by a Singaporean documentary called A Hero's Journey, which presents a snapshot of the life of President Xanana Gusmao of Timor Leste. In this Idi Amin documentary, he has final word on what gets presented, and what not, and it's quite surprising that he's OK with making himself look like a buffoon, whether deliberate or not, leaves much to interpretation of his intent. You might say he wanted to show off what he can do, and what power he wields over his cronies, but on the other, there certainly are plenty of material which could easily have dented his popularity and aura.

Watching him go through his motions just brought about a thought, that evil men need not wear their evilness or ruthlessness on their sleeves. Here, Idi Amin might be the real life personification of The Joker, smiling on the outside, but inside his heart harbours thoughts similar to the mentioned villain. He's like a charismatic comedian, and makes it difficult not to laugh at his atrocities because he really does have a lot of funny ideas. His mastery of the English language is woeful, but that doesn't stop him from speaking it, and the filmmakers subtitling every grammatical error he's made too, instead of correcting it for an audience.

He's a self-professed soothsayer and an interpreter of dreams, and sends strange telegrams to various heads of state which reads like a script for a sitcom. He's often delusional as well, and some of the highlights of this documentary, which has to be seen to be believed, include his imaginary war games to take the Golan Heights from the Israelis given his very puny army, laughable air force and armour, and best of all, training his paratroopers on a children's slide. What cannot be missed as well, are his briefings to the country's doctors and to witness him holding court as one of his cabinet meetings, which was so full of contradictions and hare-brained ideas, you can't help but laugh at the farce of it all.

You can just imagine how any country could be run with jokers like these in power. He can't speak, can't communicate, and basically doesn't even know an iota about running a military (besides the rudimentary appreciation of semi-automatic weapons), let alone a country. He's full of personal prejudice and practices discrimination, but one thing's for sure, he's quite a musician, having contributed to the soundtrack of the film.

If you think you want to go beyond the fictional The Last King of Scotland to look at this dictator up close and personal, then this documentary should be your first step in trying to understand the contradiction which is His Excellency President for Life Field Marshal Al Hadji Dr. Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, King of Scotland Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular (yes, that's his official title!)

The Criterion Collection Region Free DVD is presented in a new digital transfer as supervised by director Barbet Schroeder (as explained during his interview included). There's an 18 chapter scene selection, and extras come in the form of the aforementioned video interview with the director (running at 26:44 minutes) where he recounts the experience in shooting the documentary, and a text based timeline of Ugandan History from 1870s to 1996.

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