Idi Amin Film Prompts Viewing of 1974 Documentary

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The new film The Last King of Scotland has renewed interest in infamous Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin. Cory Turner discovers another film about Amin, the 1974 documentary General Idi Amin Dada.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

In the new film The Last King of Scotland, Forrest Whitaker plays Ugandan dictator Idi Amin as a force of nature who sees his power with good intentions.

(Soundbite of movie "The Last King of Scotland")

Mr. FORREST WHITAKER (Actor) (as Idi Amin): (Unintelligible) Idi Amin Dada, and I want to promise you this will be a government of action, not of words.

CHIDEYA: The film is historical fiction with the emphasis on fiction. Amin ruled Uganda with an iron fist from 1971 to 1979. He authorized no biographies and trusted no one to tell his story, no one except himself. So at the height of his regime he granted unusual access to his life.

NPR's Cory Turner has the story.

CORY TURNER: A sign hangs from a corrugated tin roof. It says shoot to kill. Below it stands Idi Amin wearing his signature fatigues, black beret and giant gold watch. He levels his rifle at the paper silhouette of a man and coolly pulls the trigger.

(Soundbite of movie "General Idi Amin Dada")

President IDI AMIN (Uganda): Fire.

(Soundbite of gunshots)

President AMIN: Excellent. All in the heart.

TURNER: This isn't Forest Whitaker's version of Amin. It's the man himself in General Idi Amin Dada, French filmmaker Barbet Schroeder's remarkable 1974 portrait. The documentary, now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection, shows Amin in all his moods - from gun-toting egotist to this disarming charmer, recounting his humble roots.

(Soundbite of movie "General Idi Amin Dada")

President AMIN: I come from very poor family. I wanted to tell you this. And when I became bigger, my father has no money. I am to work digging, and some money I keep it, and I pay my school fees and I study through hardship.

TURNER: The film's remarkable for two reasons: because Schroeder made it at the height of Amin's reign of terror, and because the dictator willingly appeared in nearly every frame. He even played the accordion for its soundtrack.

(Soundbite of music)

TURNER: Barbet Schroeder conquered Hollywood in the 1990s, directing movies like Barfly, Single White Female and Reversal of Fortune. But in the early 1970s, he was just another ambitious young filmmaker looking for an irresistible subject. He found Idi Amin.

Mr. BARBET SCHROEDER (Director): He was like a superstar on the screen. You watch every second, every move that he does, and he has the presence of a Marlon Brando.

TURNER: Schroeder cut a deal with a French television program. He vowed to give them first dibs on a TV version of his Amin bio if he could then release a longer theatrical version. At the time, international criticism of Amin's rule had begun to grow, so the dictator seized the opportunity to portray his regime in a positive light. He led Schroeder from one staged outing to the next.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TURNER: Here Ugandan paramilitaries train on a supersize children's slide. It's a surreal scene like much of the film undermines the image of strength and respectability Amin had hoped to project. It also shows Amin laughing, as he does through much of the film. That's whether he's reviewing troops, joking with friends, or even scolding and aide.

Schroeder says Amin often used laughter to hide this true feelings.

Mr. SCHROEDER: I've seen it hundreds of times, because I'm still trying to figure out when he's laughing and when he's serious.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TURNER: In this scene, Amin and Schroeder take a boat down the Nile. Behind them, the bank teems with dozens of hungry crocodiles. The filmmakers asked him a politically dicey question about another storied dictator, Adolph Hitler.

(Soundbite of movie "General Idi Amin Dada")

President AMIN: Why do you ask me about Hitler? The Hitler's problem is now past tense. Now we are looking forward for the future generations and a future plan.

TURNER: Amin's laughing, all right. But he's also clearly annoyed, if not angry with Schroeder, especially since future plans for Amin meant picking up where Hitler left off. As he waged a silent genocide inside Uganda, he was also making plans for a coordinated assault on Israel, or so he claims in the documentary.

When Schroeder behind the camera sounds incredulous, Amin stages one of the film's most surreal moments, a full-scale hypothetical assault on Israel's Golan Heights using real Ugandan troops and real guns.

(Soundbite of movie "General Idi Amin Dada")

(Soundbite of gunshots and explosions)

Mr. AMIN: We go quickly because helicopter now coming.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

TURNER: When it premiered in 1974, the film was well received in Europe. Of course, Amin was less pleased. When Schroeder refused to cut several scenes the dictator found unflattering, Amin took matters into his own hands.

Mr. SCHROEDER: And so then he said, okay, and then he took all the French citizens in Uganda, which were 138 people. He put them in the hotel in the center of Kampala. And there was the army around the hotel. And he gave them my phone number and says, just call this man. He may be able to do something for you. And I was getting phone calls in the middle of the night with babies crying in the background. And of course I did the cuts immediately.

TURNER: But the two-and-a-half minutes Schroeder was forced to cut made little difference in the end. The film still played just the way he'd intended.

Mr. SCHROEDER: It was too easy to make an indictment. I knew the character was unusual and had a very humorous side. And if you went to the theater at the time and you measured the laughs, there were more laughs than for a big commercial comedy.

TURNER: According to Schroeder, the film played Paris for more than a year, and audiences just kept laughing. But it's Amin who, in the end, had the last laugh. He ruled for four more years after the film's released and died just three years ago in Saudi Arabia at the ripe old age of 79. The death toll of his reign is estimated at 300,000.

Cory Turner, NPR News.

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