Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The appalling dictator Idi Amin of Uganda is shown up close and personal in a self-directed
filmic portrait intended to spread his 'wisdom', but which instead reveals his megalomania and utter
After a short recap of conditions in Uganda, 1974, we see the general-turned president
doing what benevolent, absolutist dictators do - reviewing troops, meeting and greeting the public.
He holds several 'meetings' with a group of doctors and cowed cabinet members who listen politely to
his insane gibberish. They have good reason to - Idi Amin had perhaps as many as 300,000 of his own
people killed on the most vague of personal whims. We hear Amin's desire to destroy Israel from his
own mouth, and aren't surprised when he complains that English, French and American policy makers
won't return his bizarre and hateful telegrams.
Good documentaries take us in space and time to places where we can't go, and serious documentarian
Barbet Schroeder (Koko the Talking Gorilla) and his cameraman Nestor Almendros surely risked
their own lives in bringing back this chilling portrait of the dictator Amin. 1
It takes a while to believe that a man this ignorant and brutish could become leader of anything. In
English, he cannot put together a sentence that makes any sense, and has a creepy habit of laughing
at his own jokes, which are not funny. He'd be a racist parody, the kind Savant gripes about in English
movies like Live and Let Die or
Brittania Hospital, if he weren't so obviously
the 100% genuine article. He takes us on a literal jungle cruise among hippos, elephants and
crocodiles, to which he waves as if they were personal friends. The crocs might be, as the preferred
method of disposing of his many victims was to toss them in the river above a dam. There were so many
the reptiles couldn't eat them all, and the remains clogged the turbines, causing occasional power
outages in Entebbe ...
Amin is an ex-boxer, and in one of his infantile speeches talks about delivering a knock-out to his
enemies. His regime is of course by, for and about Amin, as he considers himself to have
psychic insights as to what is good for his people. He browbeats one of his lickspittle ministers
in a hectoring 'briefing', and Schroeder freezes the film to tell us that not two weeks later, this
same minister being called on the carpet was found dead in the river.
Just when we're about to declare Conrad's Heart of Darkness the creation of a European racist,
the reality of Idi Amin in this film reminds us that those third world countries which have
militarily, can have a feral savagery that 'civilized' countries have forgotten. Amin
tells his ministers that the local chiefs' main duty is to 'separate the good from the bad and denounce
the bad', which conjures up visions of a country-wide witch-hunt where lower authorities are
encouraged to turn over ever more citizens to be killed. We see a firing-squad execution whose victims are
tossed like cordwood into the back of a truck. This was probably a relatively dignified way to die, as 300,000
in eight years adds up to 103 executions a day, every day throughout Amin's entire reign.
The first thing Amin did on entering power was to expel the mostly Asian merchants who held his commercial
economy together. In what amounts to a Dilbert moment, he brags for over a minute about encouraging
women in business, but finally admits that he knows of only 4 or 5 female managers. He talks about
welcoming Black September, the Palestinian revolutionaries who murdered the Israeli Olympic team
in 1972. Two years before the notorious hijacking of an Israeli plane to Entebbe, that ended in a
raid that freed the passengers and humiliated the dictator, Amin states on camera that he would
welcome hijacked Israeli airplanes. When asked how he plans to reconquer the Golan Heights, Amin
answers by staging some pitiful wargames for Schroeder's camera with tanks, helicopters and jets
supporting ground troops.
Schroeder lets Amin condemn himself out of his own mouth, just as Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo
did their neo-Nazis in the earlier
It Happened Here. After the premiere of the
film, Amin made threats against French citizens in Uganda to force Schroeder to cut parts of the show.
Schroeder did, but restored them after Amin's fall in 1979. One voiceover line that was inadvertently
not restored, stated that monsters like Amin were created by Africa's history of colonial rule, a
final statement that would hardly have been reassuring.
Criterion's DVD of General Idi Amin is reconstructed from the 16mm original film, bypassing
the grainy, colorless blowup done for 1974 release prints. It looks quite nice, and Almendros' docu
photography is mostly fine. Criterion's extras, as usual, provide the context to appreciate the
show's greater implications. One item, an annotated timeline of the country's history,
is an essential aid. A lengthy Barbet Schroeder interview details the circumstances of
the filming and his own ambivalence toward the show - he states that Amin's announcement of a welcome
wagon for hijackers may have initiated the bloody 1976 hijacking incident. Schroeder interestingly credits
Amin himself as being the 'director' of the film, as he dictated everything to be photographed, even at
one point shouting, 'film that helicopter!' Bluff, cheerful and psychotic, Amin doesn't seem to
realize that he's revealing his true horrid self with each interview.
The most weird thing about the Schroeder interview is the news that Amin lives in Saudi Arabia now, on
a modest scale - and hangs out at the newsstand every morning to read the international papers without
having to pay for them!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
General Idi Amin Dada rates:
Supplements: Interview with Barbet Schroeder; Ugandan history timeline
Packaging: AGI case
Reviewed: May 20, 2002
1. Savant saw Barbet Schroeder on a daily basis at Cannon when he was
editing Barfly, a rather interesting little movie. My editorial supervisor at the time,
Mark Lowrie, got to know the very even-tempered and patient Schroeder even better when he accidentally
crashed into the director's car in the parking lot. This led us to dub our boss as 'Mark, the
Driving Gorilla' for awhile.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson