Though he wasn’t widely known to most moviegoers until 1990’s Reversal of Fortune, serious film enthusiasts have followed the career of Barbet Schroeder for close to half a century. His work as a producer (of nearly all of Eric Rohmer’s witty comedies), director (of films as diverse as Maitresse, Barfly, and Our Lady of the Assassins) and sometime actor (in everything from Queen Margot to Mars Attacks!) has become further variegated with each passing year. Unique even amidst this wildly eclectic filmography is Schroeder’s 1974 “self-portrait” of now-deposed Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, a tyrant who has been credited with the cold-blooded murder of upwards of 300,000 of his country’s citizens. General Idi Amin Dada is clearly the work of the same man who made a black comedy of manners out of social-climber Claus Von Bulow’s trial for the killing of his wealthy, drug-dependent wife—indeed, there’s a lot of comedy in Idi Amin Dada, as we watch this seemingly amiable, thoroughly pompous despot attempt to transform himself into a figure of heroic proportions. But, knowing that this “silly clown” has the power to kill, the laughter catches in our throats.
Born in 1924 to the Kakwa tribe in Koboko, Uganda, Idi Amin joined the British colonial army in 1946, fighting in their war against the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya in the mid-1950s. Rising through the military ranks he became his country’s heavyweight boxing champion as well, holding the title until 1960. In 1962 (around the time Schroeder was beginning his career), Uganda won its independence from Great Britain. Amin supported his country’s new Prime Minister Milton Obote, who appointed him chief of the army and air force. But their relationship deteriorated, and in 1971 Amin staged a coup. He then launched into a campaign of persecution of rival tribes, and placed military tribunals over and above civil laws. In 1972, Amin instituted what he called an “Economic War” to remove Asian émigrés that had settled in Uganda. Rather than reinforce nationalism, this action only served to disrupt trade and distribution channels—and brought about record inflation in a country that had never known poverty. Amidst the collapsing economy, Amin garnered world fame, not only for his ruthlessness but also for his frequent telegrams to world leaders (sometimes supportive and sometimes admonishing, depending on his whim). Seeking a military solution to divert the population’s attention from their financial plight, Amin began calling for Ugandans to “arm to the teeth to reach international combat level.” Meanwhile, he looked to capitalize on his fame.
It was such highly theatrical gestures, coupled with a growing international awareness of his genocidal activities, that turned the spotlight of world attention towards him—and Schroeder came to make his film. Can a film contradict itself by the very process of its making? That’s the amusing paradox of Idi Amin Dada. While he didn’t propose the documentary, it’s likely that the outwardly pleasant yet deeply psychotic dictator was expecting a modestly scaled retread of Triumph of the Will. Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary of the 1934 Nazi party rally was expressly designed to deify Adolf Hitler, treating the mass murderer and his followers like mythic demigods. The result was one of the most fearsome, and effective, propaganda films of all time. Riefenstahl, of course, has insisted that the film was nothing more than a straightforward documentary, and that it couldn’t possibly have been imbued with Nazi propaganda—after all, it had no narration. Idi Amin Dada does have several passages of narration, but it’s hardly propaganda. If Amin, an enthusiastic Hitler admirer, thought that Schroeder would be his Riefenstahl, he was very much mistaken. For while the cameras record his every move at carefully staged rallies and public events chosen expressly by the “President for Life,” the aura is not at all worshipful. Schroeder, fascinated by the dictator, allows Amin a large degree of free reign in the film, even letting him take credit for the film’s music (Amin loves to play the accordion), but his fascination doesn’t eclipse his authority as a filmmaker. The off-screen commentary, rather than reinforcing the dictator’s declarations, ceaselessly undercuts them. Schroeder always makes sure to disclose the exact nature of what we’re seeing at any given moment. Sequences of public adulation, intended to appear spontaneous, are always identified as complete artifices.
Schroeder has chosen to shoot Amin from perspectives that could never be called “heroic”—in one sense, he’s just a man speaking to a camera head-on. It’s only the context that makes him fearsome, rather than merely buffoonish. In a scene where Amin lectures a group of doctors about their role in Ugandan society, Schroeder simply lets him drone on nonsensically—as if he were the world’s most boring high school principal. At such moments, the phrase “enough rope to hang himself ” is a propos, though Amin’s similarly staged reprimand to cabinet members—and the subsequent murder of his Minister of Foreign Affairs—begs the question of just who’s being hanged; high school principals aren’t known for executing their students. When the film was released, to prevent the “detention” of any number of French residents in Uganda, Schroeder himself was forced to make a few last-minute changes at the dictator’s request.
While it has no clear precedent, Idi Amin Dada is in many ways reminiscent of Les Maitres Fous (Jean Rouch’s 1956 documentary about African tribesman aping their French colonial rulers in native ceremonies) and Paris is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s brilliant 1991 documentary in which drag artistes carefully stage parodic homages to the class that rules over them. Like those drag queens, Idi Amin is enveloped in his own narcissistic fantasy of self-hood. But the power that he exerts through this fantasy is quite real; those drag queens may rule runways, but Amin controls an entire country.
When it opened in France in 1974, Idi Amin Dada proved popular with a public amused to see this sophisticated “savage” striking poses that appeared a funhouse mirror reflection not just of Hitler, but of the practiced charm of “accepted” world leaders. What you won’t see in images of those figures you do see captured in Schroeder’s unforgettable last shot—Amin stares out at a hostile audience and glances towards the camera with a look that mixes loathing, arrogance, and sheer naked fear.
As we now know, the combat Amin was seeking came to fruition in the Entebbe attack of 1976, in which the Israeli military bested Palestinian airplane hijackers who had taken refuge in Amin’s domain. It’s safe to say he never recovered from this defeat. For anyone with knowledge of 20th-century politics, Amin’s story is a familiar one. Like many a dictator he served as convenient ally for other world powers, depending on the specific situation, only to get thrust aside as a pariah when his services were no longer required. As of this writing Amin lives, in considerable comfort, as a “guest” of the government of Saudi Arabia. As Schroeder’s film shows, Amin is a product of both the colonized Africa into which he was born, and of the Israeli military in which he was given training (and which had supported his coup against Obote). That, once in power, he turned against the government partially responsible for creating him is the “blowback” involved in playing with human dynamite like Idi Amin.