General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review
In the opening moments of the documentary, narration introduces the small country of Uganda, a population of 10 million. Major exports include coffee, cotton and copper. Then there is a painting of a smiling man, a lieutenant who grew to be chief of staff and would soon after overthrow the country’s leader, Milton Obote. The man encouraged Nixon to have a speedy recovery after Watergate. At one point, Asians owned 80% of the economy, to which the man launched an “economic war.” There, too, were public executions, and multiple people went missing. Uganda was deemed “lawless.”
And then the viewer hears the subject speak for the first time, here in the third person: “The whole worlds are looking at General Amin and at Uganda as a whole.” GENERAL IDI AMIN DADA: A SELF PORTRAIT, in its too-brief runtime, does just that.
He shakes hands, he smiles, he parades. It is all, as some may immediately suspect, a show, a performance. It’s like one big ribbon-cutting ceremony, only this one ends with bullets in citizens. In fact, many moments in GENERAL IDI AMIN DADA: A SELF PORTRAIT were staged and orchestrated by Amin. Director Barbet Schroeder (1972’s LA VALLEE) noted, “I was putting fiction in a documentary, and it was not my fiction. It was Amin’s.” Still, while so much has been set up precisely by Amin, who the dictator really is is present throughout the entirety of the documentary. Consider the moment when Schroeder questions him about his saying Hitler should have killed more Jews. Amin does not stop the filmmaker or turn the subject around; he falls into a fit of hearty laughter.
GENERAL IDI AMIN DADA: A SELF PORTRAIT is documentation of a man who is both egomaniacal and hypersensitive. He speaks highly of himself, insisting that all the people of Uganda love him. (He also, judging by his own words, has the mentality of a boxer, where he must be the last man standing in the ring holding the championship over his head.) Yet, there is probably a certain level of embarrassment when he cannot rouse a crocodile’s attention despite obnoxious clapping. If that crocodile had been a Ugandan citizen, he wouldn’t have made it home that night.
It is utterly compelling how fact and fiction play together, how pride and delusion are so often entangled. One cannot help but think of other monstrous leaders, both past and present, both foreign and local. The whole charade becomes more and more horrifying as the film progresses, as each day turns.
Barbet Schroeder only made two documentaries in his career–this and 1978’s KOKO: A TALKING GORILLA, about the bond and astonishing teachings between the gorilla and Dr. Patterson. GENERAL IDI AMIN DADA: A SELF PORTRAIT is one of the most fascinating works on a national leader. It is so much at once, and can be viewed as two entirely different portrayals by two different audiences. Yet, an examining eye will see the full truth, and it is those eyes that world leaders must constantly be watched under.
Video: 1.37:1 in 1080p with MPEG-4 AVC codec. “Director Barbet Schroeder supervised and approved this new 2K digital transfer, which was created on an ARRISCAN film scanner from the 16 mm original camera negative.”
This transfer has a natural look to it, and considering the source, looks quite nice.
Audio: English and Swahili Mono. “The original monaural soundtrack was transferred from the 16 mm magnetic track. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD and iZotope RX.”
Overall, the audio sounds fine, although there is nothing that proves shining for a documentary of its kind.
Barbet Schroeder: There are two interviews with director Schroder: one from 2001 (26:43), which was included on Criterion’s original DVD release, and one from 2017 (12:35).
Andrew Rice (15:49): Rice, journalist and author of The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda, sits down for an interview on Idi Amin.
Also included with this Criterion Collection release: An essay by critic J. Hoberman.