Home Video Hovel: General Idi Amin Dada, by David Bax
Less than five minutes into Barbet Schroeder’s 1974 documentary, General Idi Amin Dada, we see the graphic execution by firing squad of presumed political prisoners. It’s stomach-churning and, luckily for us, it’s the last time anything quite so brutal is shown. Besides, the grisliness isn’t the point. Schroeder is demonstrating both the depravity of Amin’s reign and the impressive level of access the filmmakers were given. What follows will focus more on the latter than the former but these first images hang over everything.
Uganda gained its independence from Britain in 1962. Only nine years later, though, a military coup put Amin in charge of the country. Military rule was immediately established and, in the eight bloody years before Amin’s own ouster, an unknown number of citizens, probably in the hundreds of thousands, disappeared and are presumed to have been killed.
Schroeder, through a series of interviews and footage of the man at work, mostly avoids depicting these gruesome realities and instead takes perhaps an even more damning tack, allowing Amin to present himself as he hopes to be seen. The man is such a transparent fraud that, even when he attempts to virtually direct the film himself, he comes across as nothing more than a narcissistic blowhard who, to everyone’s misfortune, has an army at his disposal. This is where Schroeder derives the subtitle for his film, A Self-Portrait. From constantly playing to the camera during an extended cabinet meeting that makes up the middle portion of the film to the crowds of admirers that the narration tells us were organized for the filmmakers’ benefit, with citizens pressganged into being extras, we quickly see how the size of Amin’s ego is directly proportionate to its fragility. If that sounds strikingly similar to another, current world leader, the comparisons to President Trump become even more striking when we see a specially staged military parade or when he can’t even present a national medal to a sports team without rambling on about his own athletic prowess.
General Idi Amin Dada is often shocking in a similar way to Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing in that Schroeder was given free access to atrocities because the perpetrators don’t seem to realize that they are atrocious. The difference is that this film is not a look back but a searing account of the very moment it was made. Schroeder hints at his film’s place in the stream of time when, during a parade, a group of traditional tribal performers dance past a brand new fighter jet, Uganda’s past, present and possible future together in one shot. Mostly, though, a lot of potential seems to have been left on the table here. General Idi Amin Dada is a vital document thanks to how close Schroeder was allowed to get but one wishes he’d organized his footage into something more powerful.
Criterion’s transfer was done at 2K from the original 16MM camera negative. The graininess is where you’d expect it to be given the 16MM source and the variations in light quality are also inherent when dealing with a shot-on-the-fly documentary. Overall, the quality is good, though. The same inconsistency with sound levels and audibility can be ascribed to the filming method as well.
Special features include a pair of interviews with Schroeder and a new interview with journalist Andrew Rice about Amin. The booklet includes an essay by the great J. Hoberman.