Saturday, November 22, 2003

If there was ever a film that is so funny it hurts, it is Barbet Schroeder’s fascinating 1974 documentary General Idi Amin Dada -- A Self-Portrait. The former butcher of Uganda, at the height of his power, allowed Schroeder near-total access, apparently in an effort to present dictatorship with a happy face. Certainly, no one could tell this story better than Amin himself, who is quite the camera-hog, and very much the star of his own life, if not the hero he imagines himself to be. Amin, who was publicly fond of Hitler, ruined the economy of his country and butchered some 300,000 of his own people, comes across like some big lumbering bully who’ll kill you if you don’t let him win. In fact, that’s exactly the impression you get watching him win a swimming meet against the country’s top athletes by crowding his way across their path. We also see him laughing helplessly at his own lame jokes, chatting away with the local wild animals as if they were his subjects, and talking with his subjects as if they were children: whether it’s to assemblies of athletes or medical professionals, there seems no one whom Amin doesn’t feel can benefit from his immense, and immensely banal, wisdom. With the same self-absorbed stupidity that led him to allow Schroeder to film him in the first place, Amin believes his people see him as a beloved, benevolent, and straight-shooting head of state; "I speak the truth," he says about a thousand times. Actually, their fear is palpable, and for good reason; in one scene, he delivers a fierce reprimand to his foreign minister, who will be found dead two weeks later. Schroeder wisely keeps his own commentary at a minimum, fully and mischievously aware that no one makes a better case against this chubby-cheeked thug than the man himself.

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