Review by Michael Jacobson

Director:  Barbet Schroeder
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Barbet Schroeder Interview, Uganda Timeline
Length:  90 Minutes
Release Date:  May 14, 2002

“I am a very good marksman.”

Film ***

I was expecting General Idi Amin Dada to play out something like Triumph of the Will.  But director Barbet Schroeder is no Leni Riefenstahl.  He doesn’t regard his subject matter with the least bit of awe or reverence.  And, despite his well-earned reputation as one of the 20th century’s most notorious bad guys, Idi Amin is no Adolph Hitler, either.

To watch this film without knowing the history of Amin’s fascist rule over Uganda in the 1970s is to see the portrait of a man who is self conscious, prefers talking to listening, has ideas and opinions about everything and is usually willing to open up his mouth wide enough to display his ignorance.  In short, Amin comes across with as much fake charm as Bill Clinton, as much self-importance as Bob Dole, and as much buffoonery as Dan Quayle.  But consider that none of those three men were behind the murder of some 300,000 to 500,000 of their fellow countrymen, and the picture of Amin grows increasingly darker.

His ease with the film crew that made this documentary (released in 1974) seems born from ill-ease.  He is willing to smile, laugh, and present himself as an amiable ruler, but the forcedness of it all is often apparent.  He leads the crew on a river ride, which shows off some of the beauty of his African nation, but at the same time, he tries to come across like an expert on the wildlife, which is sometimes embarrassingly funny (his comment about how crocodiles eat the ants is a scream).  He proclaims how happy his children are while one of them is bawling ferociously.  He expresses belief that he is doing “God’s work”…and his actions are just more in a long strain of historical occurrences where horrific deeds were done in the name of God.

The narration adds to feel that Amin is a man spreading the old manure.  We see a shot of him inspecting confiscated rifles, very businesslike in manner, while the narrator quietly informs us that those weapons had been in their hands and inspected for some time now.  Amin is staging this for the benefit of his film.

He is a man of many words, and Schroeder lets him speak…sometimes it’s the best way to find out just how full of the proverbial feces they are.  When Amin addresses a group of doctors, his solemn advice is simply against drinking too much.  When it’s the doctors’ turn to speak, Amin is distinctly restless and fidgety…keeping quiet is not one of his strong suits.

We learn many things about the man, including his outspoken anti-Semitism (when a reporter asks him to confirm that he once said Hitler didn’t do enough about the Jews, all Amin can do is laugh like it was a great punchline), his “economic war” in Uganda that sent Asians and Jews out of the country, his willingness to walk a line between Communism and capitalism without embracing either, and more.  He speaks of all things with a continued smile and forced charm, as though he were just some chap discussing politics with you at the water cooler instead of a dangerous and bloodthirsty dictator.

His Jewish sentiments are of particular interest; at one point, he circulates a “true” Israeli manual about how the Jews would eventually overrun Medina and Mecca (it turned out to be a false report originally used by the Third Reich).  Unfortunately, this film came out two years before the famed raid on Entebbe, which made Amin an international joke, but one can still appreciate the historical irony in the context of what IS contained here.  Here is, after all, a man who openly expressed admiration for the leadership of Napoleon and Mao Tse Tung, two other rulers whose time in power saw great massacre and bloodshed.

Barbet Schroeder’s style is particularly keen…as mentioned, he expressed no awe or admiration for his subject matter…if anything, his tone is one of ridicule.  He is clearly not making the propaganda film that Amin thought he was participating in.  As a result, Amin ordered certain scenes to be excised from the final version of the film, on pain of the deaths of some 150 French citizens in Uganda (women and children, too), who were corralled up at his palace awaiting Schroeder’s agreement to the cuts.

Amin’s reign of terror began with and ended with the 70s, and he remains to this day an exile in Saudi Arabia.  His legacy may never inspire the chills of evil that Hitler did, but history has proven that General Idi Amin Dada had the power to churn and sicken stomachs with the best of the infamous dictators.

Video ***

I didn’t expect much from the transfer for this film, but once again, Criterion delivers the goods.  The colors from start to finish have maintained very well over the years:  they’ve stayed bright, clean, and vibrant.  The print is in remarkably good shape, too.  Some grain is apparent here and there, but it seems to be from the limitations of the film rather than the DVD transfer…it’s not distracting at any rate.  All in all, I don’t think this film has (or will) ever look better…nicely done.

Audio **

The audio is fairly standard mono…not much dynamic range, a touch of noise here and there, dialogue clear.  In other words, perfectly adequate but not inspiring either praise or criticism.

Features **

The disc features a half hour long interview with Barbet Schroeder which focuses mainly on this film, plus a Uganda time line for history buffs.  Also included in the booklet are notes concerning the original cuts to the film under the insistence of General Amin (which of course have since been restored).


General Idi Amin Dada is one of the more fascinating political documentaries I’ve seen, and one that requires you to fill in some of the blanks with your own historical perspective.  Mix the broad smiling man of this film with the butcher that his legacy proclaimed him to be, and you have a disturbing portrait of one of last century’s notorious dictators.  This one’s definitely worth seeing.