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Savant Review:

General Idi Amin Dada

General Idi Amin Dada
Criterion 153
1974 / Color / 1:37 / 90 min. / Idi Amin Dada; No One Can Run Faster Than a Rifle Bullet
Starring Idi Amin
Cinematography Néstor Almendros
Film Editor Denise de Casabianca
Original Music Idi Amin
>Produced by Jean-Francois Chauvel, Charles-Henri Favrod and Jean-Pierre Rassam
Written and Directed by Barbet Schroeder

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 monstrousness.


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 developed only 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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: good
Sound: good
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

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