Taking the Easy Way Out

Idi Amin Dada directed by Barbet Schroeder at the Orson Welles for an indefinite run

THE POINT OF documentary cinema at its best is to convey things as they really are, events as they really occurred, in all their beauty, in all their terror, in all their pathos. In this sense, Idi Amin Dada is documentary at its worst, a combination of cheap shots, superficial political commentary, and cultural racism, which results in a meaningless comic portrait of a genocidal dictator. A Swiss director, Barbet Schroeder, took a crew to Uganda in 1974, after having received express permission to do a film portrait of the Ugandan President, who had assumed power in a coup d'etat in 1971.

During the intervening three years, Amin had become something of an international villain/buffoon, due to his massacre or explusion of the nearly 100,000 Asians who had formed the managerial elite in Uganda during the colonial period, his admiration for Hitler's efforts to exterminate European Jewry, expressed in a telegram to Kurt Waldheim the day after the murder of the Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich, and his seemingly psychotic messages to other heads of state such as Tanzania's Julius Nyerere. Amin saw the film, which consists almost entirely of interviews with him and scenes of him in action, directing war games and making speeches, before it was released, and he evidently found it sufficiently flattering to allow it and Schroeder out of Uganda. Apparently we the public are supposed to perceive this fact as bitterly ironic, as though it should be extraordinarily surprising that the man who announced his intention to build a national monument to Hitler should have so poor a sense of public relations.

Of the cheap shots, the most striking is that the film is conducted entirely in English. That is to say, not only are the interviews in English, but Amin's public displays are also in English, and for the most part, whenever his subordinates are called upon to address him, they also speak in English. Now the fact is that Amin's ability to articulate himself in English is limited at best, and at times, as in a speech he attempts to deliver to the assembled physicians of Kampala, he is almost completely incoherent. Although he is undoubtedly something less than a brilliant political and social theorist in Swahili, his flawed English tends to make him appear a borderline idiot, which he certainly is not. It is unfortunate that Schroeder chose to make a political film in and about a country whose language he does not speak. But it is even more unfortunate that, rather than avail himself of the services of an interpreter, he deliberately utilized the language barrier, apparently to place particular emphasis on Amin's frighteningly shallow, misinformed, and warped worldview. The effect however, is not to frighten, but to amuse.

IN A CABINET meeting, staged for the cameras, and conducted of course in English, Amin launches into a convoluted and barely coherent explication of what he says at the outset are seven major points. After exhorting his ministers not to be hesitant and indecisive like women, not to be late to their meetings or out of their offices when he calls, and not to dilly-dally about executing spies, he has gotten so lost that he forgets the last four points. And as he rambles from non-sequitur to non-sequitur, appearing completely ludicrous, Schroeder's camera pans the room--the ministers are, to a man, taking diligent notes or listening in rapt attention. Now certainly this scene, with its Emperor's New Clothes quality to it, strikes an amusing chord. But when one considers that it is likely that not a single person in the room, save for the French film crew, understands a word of what Amin is saying as he babbles away, much of the humor quickly vanishes. And to compound this weakness in approach, there is also a racist slant in the camera work, reminiscent of the worst excesses of Birth of a Nation, exemplified by Schroeder's decision to focus on one of the ministers as he absentmindedly picks his nose. If Schroeder's point here is to demonstrate the absoluteness of Amin's power within his government, or the simplicity of his subordinates, or both, he does not succeed in making that point very poignant. On a superficial level, the utter ludicrousness of the scene vitiates any sense of horror. And if one gives it a second thought, remembering the language issue, the scene is virtually devoid of meaning.

Beyond the occasional slip into the D.W. Griffith syndrome, and far more serious, is the pervasive cultural racism in Idi Amin Dada. Among the moments that are apparently meant to be particularly hilarious are shots of Amin in native dress, participating in what seem to be Ugandan dances and ceremonies. These scenes have no purpose in the film whatsoever, unless Schroeder assumes that his audience will find practices and rites belonging to an alien culture inherently amusing. One is forced to wonder how a Ugandan audience would receive a film showing President Ford donning a football helmet and marching with the band during half-time of the Michigan-Ohio State game.

Schroeder makes an attempt to provide a contextual narrative discussing the major events of Amin's reign. Surely it would be too much to expect a sophisticated political analysis of the Amin regime as background narration to an hour and a half film, but Schroeder's effort is nonetheless startlingly superficial. Amin's "economic war"--the wholesale destruction of the Asian community in Uganda--is accorded a scant few sentences and dismissed as a failure. That is however, considerably better than the discussion of Amin's shift from a relatively close relationship with Israel to a virtual alliance with Lybia. While the pathology of Amin's anti-Zionist position is explored in detail, in all its vicious paranoia, no serious effort to explain the political and/or economic motivations of his new alliance is attempted. It would seem that one is meant to chalk the whole thing up to the whimsical ways of a deranged dictator.

The single redeming feature of Schroeder's film is its success in conveying a sense of Amin's personality and the origins of his political and personal philosophy, such as it is. For language barrier or not, Amin clearly emerges as something of a psychopath, evidenced by his manaical giggle when questioned about his affection and admiration for Hitler, by his professed knowledge of the time and circumstance of his own eventual death, and by numerous other incidents and remarks. It is apparent that he is a complete dupe of the most militant anti-Israel forces in the Arab world, believing in and parroting the worst elements in anti-Zionist propaganda. At one point he claims to have discovered a secret plan for Jewish world dominance, detailed in a book that the Israelis are anxious to suppress, lest the plot be exposed. It is because of his fear that the Israelis will get their hands on his book--which Amin apparently believes to be the sole copy outside of Israel--that Amin will only allow Schroeder to look at the book, rather than keep it. The book is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The film also succeeds in capturing Amin's egomania, depicting his obsession with uniforms, parades, and demonstrations of fealty be his subjects. But beyond these all too few salient features, there is just not very much there. And what is particularly serious about the failure of this film is the unbelievable horror of life in Uganda since Amin's ascendancy. In an article on "Amin's Butchery", in last week's New York Review of Books, David Martin cites the report of Edward Rugumayo, Amin's first minister of education, who fled the country two years after the coup d'etat.

He described eight methods of killing used at Makindye prison. These involved making prisoners line up and ordering the first to smash the second man's head with a hammer. The process was repeated down the line until the last man was shot. Another method was to cut flesh from a victim and force him to eat it until he died. Rugumayo said it was estimated that 80,000 to 90,000 people died in Amin's first two years in power: but he admitted that this might be a conservative figure.

The details of what has happened and continues to happen in Uganda are emerging only gradually. But what is already known is more than enough. Chaplin succeeded with The Great Dictator because he made a mockery of Hitler based on exactly what Hitler was, at a time when National Socialism was a much admired idealogy, and the emergence of a New Germany a much admired phenomenon, by all too many in the western world. Schroeder barely scratches the surface of what Amin really is and what Amin's rule in Uganda is all about. Sacrificing serious analysis for attempts at farce, and cheap attempts at that, completely undermines the potential of Idi Amin Dada. Schroeder should not have settled for the easy way.