Idi Amin on film.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Aug. 21 2003 4:18 PM

Cult of Personalism

A remarkable documentary about Idi Amin gets to the heart of his politics.

Idi Amin: The dictator's monologue comes to an end
Idi Amin: The dictator's monologue comes to an end

Idi Amin, the former Ugandan dictator who died last week, was notoriously brutal and capricious. He was also notoriously hungry for publicity. Amin, as his obituary in the New York Times put it, "reveled in the spotlight of world attention," and he did all that he could to make sure the spotlight stayed focused on him. He specialized in outrageous insults and stunts (such as ordering white businessmen to carry him on a palanquin, just as black Ugandans had once been forced to carry British colonialists). And he routinely sent off bizarre telegrams to other heads of state. (To Tanzanian ruler Julius Nyerere, Amin wrote: "I want you to know 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. But as you are a man, that possibility does not arise.") Amin's hunger for publicity was so great, in fact, that in 1974 he became the first dictator in history to agree to be the subject of an independent documentary film. The resulting movie, Barbet Schroeder's General Idi Amin Dada (which was released last year on DVD by Criterion), is a devastating look at despotism in action and a riveting, and strangely entertaining, portrait of Amin.

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Amin is in nearly every scene of the film, and he eats up the camera. He plays the accordion. He fires an automatic rifle into a target and proudly announces, "All in the heart!" He brags about siring 18 children. ("I am a very good marksman," he laughs.) He wins a swimming race by ignoring the lane lines and swatting aside his competitors (who, sensibly enough, don't seem to be trying very hard to win). And he talks. And talks. And talks. He riffs on the importance of dreams, the beauty of elephants, the perfidy of Israel. He exhorts doctors not to get drunk, since "if the public learn you are a drunkard, they lose confidence." And he reveals that he knows the exact time and date of his own death.

This all could have been, of course, incredibly dull. (Imagine a documentary that consisted mostly of Joe Lieberman talking and talking.) But instead it's utterly compelling. The camera simply loves Amin. (The New York Times' obituary rightly called him "telegenic.") In an excellent interview included on the DVD, Schroeder says of Amin, "He's extremely charming. He's very funny." And he is so crazy that it's impossible to predict what he'll do, or say, next. One of the geniuses of Schroeder's approach was that rather than pepper Amin with questions, he simply let the cameras roll on and on. You can see Amin trying to come up with something interesting to say; he just keeps rambling, drunk on his own words, until he figures out where's he going.

Amin seems to have imagined that the movie would end up as his version of Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl's adulatory documentary about Hitler's 1934 Nuremberg rallies. But throughout, the dictator's self-aggrandizing ambitions are sabotaged by Schroeder's careful use of montage and voice-over, which juxtapose Amin's fantastical claims with the reality of the havoc he wreaked on Uganda, and by Amin's own self-delusory ravings. Schroeder subtitled the film "A Self Portrait," and that's exactly what it is: a self-portrait by a man who has no sense of how he really looks. One of the film's classic set pieces, for instance, involves a war game that Amin devised for the Ugandan army, which simulates an invasion of the Golan Heights. (Amin was obsessed with destroying Israel and claimed to be training forces to invade it.) The simulation is meant to demonstrate the threat that Uganda poses to its enemies, and Amin's extraordinary strategic genius. But the "invasion" looks like an outtake from a training exercise in Stripes, and Amin—who reacts excitedly when a single helicopter appears—ends up looking more like a little kid playing Risk than a battlefield commander.

The harsh truth for Uganda, of course, was that this little kid was deciding the fate of the country, without any checks or opposition. The most remarkable—and painful—scene in the movie is a meeting of Amin's cabinet, during which he harangues his ministers for their numerous faults, telling them, "You must not be like a woman who is just weak" and insisting "Everybody must love his leader," while they nod and furiously scribble notes. It's like watching the worst business meeting in history, with the notable difference that the only way to leave the meeting was to be murdered. (At one point, Amin blasts the Minister of Foreign Affairs for not doing enough to publicize Uganda's triumphs to the outside world. A voice-over tells us that two weeks later the minister was thrown to the crocodiles.) This, Schroeder makes you realize, is what dictatorship is: a monologue that never ends.

That cabinet meeting is crucial because it suggests something important about Amin: As evil and as power-mad as he may have been, he really thought he knew how to make things run better. Throughout the meeting, he keeps saying, almost desperately, "I must make it absolutely clear," and he sounds like he means it. He knows what needs to be done, and he thinks that if he can just make his vision absolutely clear, then Uganda's problems can be solved. At one point, he brags that Uganda has more female hotel managers than any other country in Africa. "We have got four managers, and another two assistant managers." This is a strange thing for the president of an entire country to worry about—but Amin seems to feel that he has to worry about it: Only if he controls everything, and only if he can keep the country in line, will Uganda prosper. Success, Amin seems to believe, is a matter of will and of heeding his good advice. People just need to work harder—women need to get up at "about 5 o'clock in the morning"—and love their leaders. If something's wrong, then, it's because a citizen has personally failed, not because the system is screwed up. Amin had no ideology. ("We are not following any policy at all," he says at one point.) Like so many Third World tyrants, he was not a fascist or a Communist. His idea of the world was purely personalistic. He was an Amin-ist.

James Surowiecki writes the financial column at The New Yorker.

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