Idi Amin has gone down in history as one of the most vicious dictators to have ever lived. Coming to power within the volatile frameworks of a post-independence Africa, Amin was responsible for hundreds of thousands of death during his regime. Even though some estimates (from 100,000 to 500,000) have been thrown out there, the real death toll is probably lost forever.
Documenting the life of a tyrant or launching an investigation into their psychology is almost always challenging. In Barbet Schroeder’s unique 1974 documentary General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait, we are confronted with a vision of Amin that was engineered and curated by Amin himself. Given free rein to present himself to the camera, Uganda’s infamous despot concocts a terrifyingly disarming version of himself.
Schroeder, an important figure of the French New Wave, started his journey in the world of cinema by starting the iconic production company Les films du losange with the New Wave visionary Éric Rohmer. He worked with other pioneers such as Jean-Luc Godard before setting out to establish himself as a filmmaker as well.
His career has been an interesting one, with fascinating documentaries about interesting subjects such as Charles Bukowski as well as the big-budget thrillers that he made later on. Even after all these years, his documentary on Idi Amin remains the most striking cinematic experience created by him because of the horrifying historical context.
In 1974, Schroeder produced Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating, one of the essential classics of French cinema. In the same year, he also worked on this project where the formidable Idi Amin reveals his media tricks in front of the eyes of the people around him as well as the critical gaze of the camera that is recording his lies for future generations.
“He’s joking all the time if he feels he has an audience,” Schroeder noted in an interview, commenting on Amin’s manufactured joviality. Indeed, the dictator bursts out in laughter throughout the length of the documentary about various things. Ranging from questions about his strange telegrams to his views on Hitler, he laughs almost everything off.
Enforcing his arrogance and his tendency to speak in superlatives, Amin introduces himself as the father of post-independence Africa. He claims that he is a great revolutionary who is fighting for the Black community in many parts of the world, especially in the US. Without hesitating, the tyrant oscillates from dreams of liberation to anti-semitic propaganda.
Despite the relatively simple nature of Schroeder’s documentary, General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait is fascinating because the film lets Amin deconstruct his own mythology. From the retrospective view, his lies are clear for modern audiences because it is easy to spot the hypocrisy and the fabrications in Amin’s version of his own history.
However, the film was a revelatory experience for audiences when it first came out because Amin’s personality was dissected by the dictator himself. Through simple actions such as addressing terrified cabinet members, cheating in a swimming race, directing the gaze of the camera towards his big, bag fighter helicopters and jets, Amin tells us everything we need to know about him.
Some of the most interesting quotes from Amin are his views on America. “The black people in America must be the president of the United States of America,” Amin declares. “They are more brilliant than Dr. Kissinger. Kissinger is not very intelligent.” Although he tries to convince everyone that he is the saviour of Africa, it was Amin’s tyranny that became a huge blow to the cause of African nationalism.
Thanks to his alliance with Muammar Gaddafi and other radical figures, Amin maintained a reign of terror until he was deposed and sent into exile. He later died due to kidney failure in his late 70s unlike the majority of the people his government had eliminated, human beings who had died with fear paralysing their bodies and minds.
There has been a lot of research about Amin’s personal life but he never sanctioned an autobiography or an official biography which is why Schroeder’s Self-Portrait is so important. It raises many important questions about the devastating impact of colonialism and the terrifying formation of the colonial subject as Idi Amin.
“I was putting fiction in a documentary, and it was not my fiction. It was Amin’s,” Schroeder insisted. That fiction was more revealing than any accurate facts Amin could have provided, resulting in the creation of a subtextual self-critique that remains a characteristic element in many other famous self-portraits of history’s worst tyrants.