Sunday, August 14, 2016

#2,173. General Idi Amin Dada (1974)

Directed By: Barbet Schroeder

Starring: Idi Amin, Fidel Castro, Golda Meir

Line from the film: "I come from a very poor family. I wanted to tell you this"

Trivia: Many events in the film were staged by Amin himself

The story goes that about a year after the release of Barbet Schroeder’s 1974 documentary General Idi Amin Dada, Amin himself, the ruler of Uganda and the film's main subject, received word from his “agents” in Britain that audiences were laughing at the movie, as if it were a comedy. Concerned by this, Amin had these so-called agents transcribe the film and send him their notes. He then contacted Schroeder and asked him to cut about two and a half minutes out of the movie. Naturally, Schroeder refused. So Amin gathered up all of the French citizens living in Uganda, placed them in a hotel, and gave them Schroeder’s home phone number, telling them that if they wanted to return to their homes, they’d have to “persuade” the director to obey his wishes. Having spent a few weeks with Amin, Schroeder knew what he was capable of, and figured it would only be a matter of time before the Ugandan leader started executing his prisoners. So the scenes were cut out.

It was with strong-arm tactics such as these that Amin, an Army General and former heavyweight boxing champion, ascended to power in 1971, overthrowing President Obote in a bloody coup (Obote was out of the country at the time). During his 8-year reign (from 1971 to 1979), Amin expelled all Asian workers, in some cases handing their businesses over to Ugandans; and in a show of solidarity with fellow Muslims in the Middle East threw out the Israelis as well, giving their embassy to the Palestinians.

To solidify his position, Amin tried to win favor with other world leaders (in a note to Nixon, Amin called the American President his “dear brother” and wished him a speedy recovery from the Watergate affair), and talked openly of war with Israel. A giant of a man (he stood 6 ft. 4 inches tall, and weighed well over 300 pounds), Amin also believed that a show of strength was always the best course of action, and in February of 1972 organized 12 public executions to rid himself of several opponents. It is estimated that between 300,000 and 500,000 Ugandans were killed during his time in power, including doctors and former Gov’t officials. One year after Amin and his troops invaded Tanzania (in 1978), the Tanzanians carried out a counter-invasion, and along with Anti-Amin factions working within Uganda forced Amin to flee to Libya. He lived the rest of his days in exile, mostly as a guest in Saudi Arabia, before finally dying in 2003.

General Idi Amin Dada was shot on-location in Uganda a few years after Amin first took control.

I’m not sure which two and a half minutes of the film Amin objected to (they have since been added back in), but to be honest they couldn’t have been any worse than the 90 or so that seemingly didn’t bother him. From start to finish, General Idi Amin Dada makes its central figure look like a fool. Amin delivers several speeches throughout the movie, addressing everyone from government ministers to villagers, and each time his style is the same: self-promotion followed by his belief in strength above all else (in the first speech we’re privy to, Amin brags about how fast a runner he was during his rugby playing days). He boasts incessantly when on-screen, and claims to hold sway over wild animals (while on a boat, Amin spots a crocodile on the banks of the river and says he’ll make it move. When the croc doesn’t respond to his claps, Amin says it must be “sleeping”).

Amin actively participates in several events during the film, at one point playing alongside a band with his accordion (to be fair, he was quite good with the instrument), and even wins a swim meet (though it was clear his opponents were holding back). In what may be the film’s most outlandish segment, the Ugandan leader talks of invading the Golan heights in Israel, and stages a mock battle for the camera to show off his strategy (somehow, he believed he’d accomplish this feat with a couple of tanks, two planes, a helicopter, and a few dozen troops).

You will definitely find plenty to laugh about in General Idi Amin Dada, though it’s not really a laughing matter, because despite being something of a buffoon, Amin was also a brutal dictator, ready to strike his opponents down with whatever force he deemed necessary. At one point during General Idi Amin Dada, Amin, addressing the members of his government, chastises the Minister of Foreign Affairs for not being honest with him. This minister, who was in attendance, looks pretty nervous as a result, and rightly so; two weeks later, they would fish his corpse out of a river. 

If nothing else, General Idi Amin Dada stands as a testament to what happens when someone unfit to govern gains control of a country. It can sometimes lead to comedy, but it’s the tragedy of it all that history will remember.

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