General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait: A Tyrant for Our Times
“He’s joking all the time if he feels he has an audience,” Barbet Schroeder said of Idi Amin in a 1976 New York Post interview.
I think we know the type.
Ugandan dictator Amin, the subject of Schroeder’s 1974 documentary General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait, was a trash-talking, impulse-driven blowhard and an incorrigibly boastful performer, not without a sense of humor and a certain rough charm. With regard to his ideology, this jovially menacing former heavyweight boxing champ (six feet four and 240 pounds) might be described as a populist demagogue who, strategically xenophobic but essentially solipsistic, insultingly personalized his relations with foreign leaders. Frequently referring to himself in the third person, Amin was not only a shameless braggart but also an outrageous liar. “I always speak the truth,” he assures Schroeder with a smile.
For much of his life, and particularly as a colonial subject, Amin (ca. 1925–2003) had been underestimated, most of all by his British command officers, who, as one recalled, considered him “a splendid chap, though a bit short on the gray matter.” Amin’s first recorded words after taking power in a January 1971 military coup against his patron Milton Obote, himself a dictator—as well as the leader of Uganda’s independence movement—were “I am not a politician.” Yet he did have political instincts. As was noted by one British foreign-affairs expert in the 1972 edition of the annual journal Africa Contemporary Record,Amin’s “extroverted personality and his penchant for ‘meeting the masses’” prompted comparison to “an American candidate in a presidential election campaign.”
Once installed as Uganda’s president, Amin played the common man writ large, albeit one who in Schroeder’s film appears in a variety of military uniforms. Scarily out of his depth, unwilling to read, unable to focus on serious issues, and unaccustomed to the workings of government, he ruled according to his whims, sometimes using the radio to inform his ministers of new policy directives.
Amin struck those familiar with the work of French playwright Alfred Jarry as a real-life version of his buffoonish tyrant in Ubu Roi. (When I first saw General Idi Amin Dada forty years ago, I assumed that Schroeder had added the sobriquet “Dada” as a nod to the anti-art avant-garde.) However, unlike Père Ubu, who childishly announces, “I’m going to war, and I’ll kill everybody,” Amin was a real mass murderer. By the time he was ousted from power in 1979, he was responsible for as many as three hundred thousand deaths, as well as forms of torture too nauseating to recount—but that’s another story.
At least at first, the Western press was entertained by Amin’s absurd bombast and posturing. An estimated ten thousand Ugandans were killed during the first year of his regime, but Amin attracted more international attention during the summer of 1972, by praising Hitler, applauding the murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, and ordering the expulsion of sixty thousand South Asian residents who represented a significant proportion of the nation’s shopkeepers, traders, bureaucrats, and professionals. Soon, Amin broke relations with Britain and Israel, also an early enabler, to ally himself with another anti-Western despot, Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi.
Originally subtitled No One Can Run Faster Than a Rifle Bullet, Schroeder’s portrait opened in Paris in June 1974. A month earlier, the Washington Post had quoted an African diplomat in Nairobi’s assertion that, Amin’s clownish image notwithstanding, “the common men in Africa look up to him as fearless, as a great man, because he goes around saying what he thinks.” Nevertheless, reporting in the International Herald Tribune, Thomas Quinn Curtiss called this “the funniest film in town,” adding that “if it were fiction, it would be acclaimed as a comic masterpiece.”
A cosmopolitan by nature, Schroeder was born in Tehran in 1941, the son of a Swiss-French geologist and a German doctor; he was raised in Colombia and France, where as a young cinephile he wrote for Cahiers du cinéma and worked with Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette.
Schroeder’s career, which includes both documentaries and fiction, has been varied but coherent. “If Schroeder’s films can be said to share a common impulse,” Gavin Smith wrote in Film Comment in 1995, “it is toward examining the moral and philosophical consequences of extreme forms of extrasocial, if not antisocial, freedom.” Schroeder’s hit debut feature, More (1969), concerned hedonistic, heroin-addicted hippies; his third fiction feature, Maîtresse (1976), made after General Idi Amin Dada, starred Bulle Ogier as a romantic dominatrix. Subsequent movies include the documentary Koko: A Talking Gorilla (1978); a feature about compulsive gamblers, Tricheurs (1984); and another, Barfly (1987), with a screenplay by Charles Bukowski, about skid-row alcoholics. Jeremy Irons gave a career-defining performance as the real-life suspected wife killer Claus von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune (1990), while Jennifer Jason Leigh played a deranged roommate in Single White Female (1992).
After completing his second feature, La vallée (1972), a movie of self-discovery in the New Guinea highlands, Schroeder flew to Uganda with a crew, including the great Spanish-born cinematographer Néstor Almendros, hoping to get Amin’s cooperation in making a film. Although, to his surprise, Amin immediately agreed to the project, it seemed like a risky enterprise. “Before I went to Uganda to make the film, I made out a will,” Schroeder told a representative of Interview.
That Schroeder gave one of his first long American interviews to Andy Warhol’s magazine is appropriate. While his interlocutor, who went by the nom de plume Tinkerbelle, was more interested in Maîtresse, which opened in New York a few months after General Idi Amin Dada, the latter is the more Warholian film.
To be truly Warholian, I suppose, Schroeder would have had to use all eight hours of footage that he filmed during his two weeks in Uganda, but what his film has in common with those produced in Warhol’s Factory is its sense of its subject as a performative personality who needed no direction beyond knowledge of the camera’s placement in order to be (or reveal) himself. Amin was a Third World superstar, as Schroeder acknowledged in describing a photo op orchestrated by Amin a year after the movie was made: “When he staged his entrance to the meeting of the Organization for African Unity carried by four white men, it made him a hero instantly.”
General Idi Amin Dada, which Schroeder would later subtitle A Self-Portrait, is all about the dictator’s self-presentation. Schroeder asked for little more than access. Thus much of the movie consists of Amin sauntering around, boasting of his omnipotence—at one point addressing his comments to crocodiles and hippos—and presiding over empty military ceremonies.
Amin needs little prompting to extol the power of landlocked Uganda’s navy or to provide jaunty accordion music for a casual fete. At times, his cooperation exceeded expectations. Schroeder could not have anticipated Amin’s use of the Ugandan army to playact strategy for taking the Golan Heights.
One of the filmmaker’s few provocative questions, querying Amin’s professed admiration for Hitler, prompts little comment and much overly hearty laughter. Elsewhere, the broadly smiling Amin is pleased to volunteer opinions on various foreign leaders. Golda Meir “used to give me very good entertainment when I was in Israel.” Henry Kissinger is afraid of him. British prime minister Edward Heath should be grateful for the food aid that Uganda plans to send to his country.
Amin upstages a number of performers throughout, and exuberantly cheats his way into victory in a swim meet by barging into a smaller opponent’s lane. Schroeder ends on an ominous note as Amin lectures a group of doctors, inanely cautioning them against excessive alcohol consumption and suddenly freezing in paranoid anger when one has the temerity to ask a (fairly innocuous) question.
The most telling sequence—and one of the few that Schroeder proposed—is a cabinet meeting. As Amin questions members’ fitness for their jobs, the camera finds the foreign minister, Michael Ondoga, and a voice-over notes that two weeks later his corpse will be found floating in the Nile. Curtiss deemed the cabinet meeting “the most hilarious sequence witnessed since Mack Sennett was in his prime, with the general lecturing his staff on loyalty while his nervous underlings scribble notes.”
Amin, however, was not amused. Some weeks after the movie opened, having received reports from Paris as well as a surreptitiously taped soundtrack, he demanded that the voice-over in this sequence be eliminated, along with several other segments—his assertion that thousands of vanished Ugandan public figures were hiding in London, his quoting of his own scurrilous telegram to Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere (“I love you very much, and if you had been a woman I would have considered marrying you, although your head is full of gray hairs”), and, finally, the last sentence of the voice-over narration: “After a century of colonialism, isn’t it in part a deformed image of ourselves that Idi Amin Dada reflects?”
To ensure that the cuts, totaling less than two and a half minutes, would be made, he rounded up over one hundred French residents of Uganda and effectively held them hostage. (The material was cut, then restored after Amin was driven from power.) Amin would be a player in another hostage crisis by the time General Idi Amin Dada opened commercially in the U.S., late in the summer of 1976. Less than two months before that, Palestinian hijackers landed an Air France flight at Kampala’s Entebbe Airport and the passengers were rescued by Israeli commandos.
That made the movie seem all the more prophetic and Amin, who tells Schroeder that Palestinian hijackers would “be very welcome” in Uganda, all the more absurd. Entebbe revealed Amin to be a paper tiger, but, as Schroeder noted in that 1976 New York Postinterview, one sees in Amin what one wants. As he pointed out, the movie enjoyed a long run in Israel even as it played in Lebanon, Algeria, and Morocco.
Indeed, the embarrassment of Entebbe may have made it easier for reviewers to enjoy Amin’s personality. “Behind it all one sees the general’s megalomania, his cruelty, his wit, and his charm,” Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times, while New York magazine’s critic John Simon called Amin “an odd mixture of monstrousness and charm, shrewdness and stupidity, arrogance and eagerness to captivate. He is both a liar and a visionary, sordid and grandiosely unhinged, a man of many talents: murderous, hilarious, some even likable.”
A character played by Nicolas Cage in Schroeder’s 1995 neonoir Kiss of Death reminded some of Amin—“both endearing, childlike psychopaths,” as Gavin Smith put it. Still, Schroeder did not find another subject to rival Amin until 2007, when, thirty-odd years after making Idi Amin Dada, he portrayed the rogue lawyer Jacques Vergès.
The son of a French father and an Indo-Chinese mother, an anticolonial activist once married to the Algerian revolutionary Djamila Bouhired, Vergès is most notorious for defending the terrorist Carlos the Jackal and the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie. As with Amin, Schroeder posed very few questions to his urbane, cigar-puffing subject. Vergès, who claims to identify with the France of Montaigne and Diderot, projects total self-satisfaction. No client is so vile that this smiling bon vivant cannot use the case to avenge his humiliation as a mixed-race colonial at the hands of the French.
In a way, Vergès and Amin are twins—two nightmare manifestations of the West come to reality. This is Schroeder’s critique. As he points out, Amin was a product of the British Army who learned to kill in the war against the Mau Mau in Kenya. As a caricature of colonial rule as well as a meditation on postcolonial atrocities, General Idi Amin Dada is not without precedent. Schroeder’s movie anticipates The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 portrait of now elderly participants in the midsixties death-squad slaughter that brought the Suharto regime to power in Indonesia, and it elaborates on Les maîtres fous(The Mad Masters), an early documentary by the ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch, a figure Schroeder much admires.
Shot in 1953 and 1954 in the British colony that a few years later would become independent Ghana, Rouch’s thirty-six-minute movie shows members of the Hauka cult in the throes of spiritual possession, drinking dogs’ blood, frothing at the mouth, and going out of their minds—all as a means of hilariously mocking their colonial overlords.
Les maîtres fous was banned in England but caused a small sensation in France, where it was shown commercially in 1957. The movie inspired Jean Genet to write the play Les nègres (The Blacks); filmmaker Claude Chabrol was naively amazed by the performances. (“How can he direct actors like that?” he supposedly asked Rouch’s distributor.)
It is possible that Rouch’s film impressed Schroeder as well. Certainly General Idi Amin Dada’s kicker, to which Amin objected so strenuously, would suggest as much. Did Amin fancy himself the African equivalent of a European leader? Does the film represent a colonial subject’s fantasy of omnipotence? Or was he the prototype for a new sort of media-created despot?
“I was not putting documentary footage into fiction,” Schroeder wrote. “I was putting fiction in a documentary, and it was not my fiction. It was Amin’s.” And, it would seem, ours as well.
Sources for this article were Godfrey E. N. Nsubuga’s The Person of Idi Amin (2012); Mahmood Mamdani’s Imperialism and Fascism in Uganda (1984); and, mainly, Samuel Decalo’s Psychoses of Power: African Personal Dictatorships (1989), as well as two articles from the September 16, 1976, issue of the New York Review of Books: Denis Hills’s “Horror in Uganda I: Amin’s Subjects” and David Martin’s “Horror in Uganda II: Amin’s Butchery.”