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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » General Idi Amin Dada
General Idi Amin Dada
Criterion // Unrated // May 14, 2002
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Jason Bovberg | posted May 21, 2002 | E-mail the Author
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WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?

The genesis of this film is even more interesting than the film itself. In 1973, Ugandan General Idi Amin Dada agreed to participate in a film project with French director Barbet Schroeder (Reversal of Fortune, Single White Female), in which the big and disturbingly charismatic Amin would star as himself—smiling hugely, touring the country, displaying military drills, enjoying local dance competitions, attending meetings, and so on. In a performance that's obviously orchestrated and intended as military propaganda, Amin unknowingly comes across as a sheer buffoon, which is all the more disturbing in light of the fact that he murdered hundreds of thousands of people during his reign.

The film essentially follows Amin around, letting him make a fool of himself. He wants—seemingly desperately—to be the ultimate friendly ruler, when in fact he is astounding in his ignorance. Not comfortable remaining quiet, he shoots off his mouth about any subject, even those about which he knows absolutely zero. There's an embarrassing humor to these passages, as when he tries to be an expert on African wildlife or when he advises doctors about the perils of drinking. You might consider the film a comedy if not for the man's horrific deeds offscreen.

Schroeder's film is equally adept at capturing Amin's evil. We learn firsthand of his anti-Semitism and of his political machinations that forced Asians and Jews out of Uganda. The fact that he speaks of these evils while smiling and laughing heartily only increases the horror of his position.

In 1974, after viewing the film, Amin demanded that Schroeder cut footage from the film, going so far as to threaten the lives of French citizens living in his country. Schroeder made the requested cuts, but restored the footage when Amin was finally exiled in 1979. Considering the film's tone—that of subtle mockery and distaste—it's surprising that Amin didn't demand wholesale destruction of the celluloid. On the other hand, it makes sense that Amin was oblivious to the ridicule, considering what the film has shown us.

HOW'S IT LOOK?

Criterion presents General Idi Amin Dada (A Self Portrait) in a startlingly fine fullscreen transfer of the film's original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Colors are rich and bright. I noticed very little wear and tear on the print. Detail is impressive into backgrounds.

HOW'S IT SOUND?

The disc offers only the original Dolby Digital mono audio mix. I wouldn't call this a dynamic track, but it gets the job done. Dialog is clear and accurate.

WHAT ELSE IS THERE?

The only supplement of much value is a 30-minute interview with director Barbet Schroeder, in which he discusses the challenges of creating the film. You also get a text-based history of Uganda. Finally, the booklet includes notes about Amin's requested cuts to the film.

WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?

General Idi Amin Dada is an engaging political documentary, all the more so because of the history of the man and the history of the production. The dichotomy inherent in this man's winning smile and his malicious deeds is chilling, especially when you hold it up to some of America's recent political buffoonery. Give this film a close look.

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