The Persistence of the Bizarre: On the 40th Anniversary of ‘General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait’

More than 40 years ago, the world was given a unique opportunity to laugh at a despot. He laughed back.


Looking retroactively at General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait is an odd undertaking. One would think that Barbet Schroeder’s landmark documentary would be less resonant now, 35 years after the dictator’s removal from power and over a decade since his death. To a certain extent, that’s true. The chill of watching the ramblings of a man currently, immediately making decisions that would endanger and end the lives of his own countrymen has faded. Yet in its place there is a troubling legacy of mania. General Idi Amin Dada is still evocative because it is still bizarre. The happy accident that Europe’s artistic rejection of reason is embedded in the name of the subject has only gotten more appropriate.

It’s also especially resonant now because of the recent uptick in documentaries made by Western filmmakers in Uganda. Last year we got the particularly strong double bill of God Loves Uganda and Call Me Kuchu, and the year before that we all experienced the social media insanity that was the Kony 2012 phenomenon. But more on that later. First, a look back at Schroeder’s uncomfortable masterpiece. The French director arrived in the East African nation with soon-to-be-legendary cinematographer Nestor Almendros (Days of Heaven) and open expectations. One does not simply walk into a militarized state and make a film about its tyrant, unfettered. Amin invited them to profile him, but on his own terms.

As a result, the film is something of a battle between documentarian and subject, a game of chess between Amin’s ballast and Schroeder’s narration. Scenes of celebration and triumph are staged for the camera by the Ugandan president. A trip down the Nile is arranged, juxtaposing the dictator with crocodiles and elephants, symbols of nationalistic might. Schroeder and Almendros sit in on cabinet meetings, in which Amin both uplifts and menaces his appointees. We watch him intimidate his foreign minister, blustering about his goal of a glorious foreign policy. The filmmakers interrupt this rant to inform the audience that this particular gentleman disappeared shortly thereafter and was replaced by former model and Cambridge-educated lawyer Princess Elizabeth of Toro.

In David Ehrenstein’s essay for the film’s Criterion release he proposes that the dictator expected Schroeder to be his Leni Riefenstahl and that the documentary would glorify him in the style of Triumph of the Will. I am not so sure. His playfully combative attitude toward the filmmakers seems to suggest that, even though he welcomed them into his country, he does not trust them. Amin’s delusion of grandeur is that he can take on the skeptical Frenchman all by himself. He invites Schroeder and Almendros to film him playing the accordion, planning and practicing for a theoretical invasion of Israel, and winning a race against younger and fitter Ugandans in his private swimming pool. All of these moments are driven by his own enthusiast yelling, as if trying to secure the camera’s friendship through sheer force of will.

Then there is the laughter. When Schroeder brings up Amin’s telegram to the President of Tanzania, in which he informed the neighboring head of state that he would be interested in marrying him if only he were a woman, Amin begins to giggle. He is a performer, as well as his own best audience member. When speaking before an audience of doctors he cracks a few jokes. One of the doctors makes the mistake of referring to the chair of a medical association as its “president” (only Amin is allowed to use that word as a title in Uganda). Amin, unfazed, responds with another joke that underlines his own power over this unlucky subject. One gets the sense throughout General Idi Amin Dada that he is constantly amused by Schroeder and his camera because there is some sort of higher truth that he thinks he knows and that the filmmaker does not.

In some situations, that truth is as ridiculous as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the bogus antisemitic classic that Amin presents to Schroeder as something scholarly and new. Yet more often than not, what Amin seems to consider his unnamed trump card is his power. After all, he was a horrifically dangerous man. Not only did he ruin the economy of his country but he caused the deaths of upwards of 300,000 of its citizens. This central fact is what makes General Idi Amin Dada so bizarre. As he chats with an alligator or directs new army recruits to rush down a slide likely taken from a children’s playground, neither Schroeder nor the audience can separate the comedy from the horror beneath it. The film is overwhelmed by questions of who controls each image and what it implies. Amin is simultaneously a buffoon and a tyrant, an unwittingly hilarious cartoon and an agent of death. The brutally bizarre tone of this discourse is the central theme of the documentary.

Now, 40 years later, the nonfiction cinema made by Westerners in Uganda continues to be troubling and strange. Yet the grand, layered weirdness of General Idi Amin Dada has been fragmented. It is the basic pitch of God Loves Uganda that is odd, not the question it provokes. The film tracks the role of American evangelical missionaries and activists in the growing social and political campaign against LGBT people in Uganda. Its images of white, American youths taking their message to Ugandans are almost as strange as its images of American evangelical leaders delivering their false testimony of bigotry to the Ugandan parliament. It is all peculiarly evocative of General Idi Amin Dada, in which the country’s single greatest villain also spends a great deal of time talking about the importance of love.

Yet most of these images are shallow compared to those of Schroeder’s film. These American Christians seem less self-aware than even the apparently psychotic Amin, who understood his adversarial relationship with his documentarian. Roger Ross Williams, director of God Loves Uganda, renders Ugandan politicians with less nuance than Schroeder did, perhaps in part because that sort of nuance is no longer there. Their mission is too ignorant, their ideology too simple. They seem either incapable or unwilling to admit their real power within Ugandan society.

More vivid is the footage of murdered gay activist David Kato’s funeral featured in both God Loves Uganda and Call Me Kuchu, a richer film that empathetically profiles the fledgling LGBT rights movement in the country. The footage is bizarre because of the way it distills the overwhelming faith fueling the struggle of both those who seek to free LGBT Ugandans and those to see them jailed or executed. As mourners and protesters shout at one another, weeping and hollering, one cannot help but be shaken to the core. Yet even this provocative image derives most of its power from its surface-level symbolism.

The single most bizarre image of the last few years relating to Western involvement in Uganda was taken far away from Africa. That would be the clip of Jason Russell, director of the activist documentary Kony 2012, naked and ranting. This was during the height of the controversy over his film, an outraged call to action that many experts considered either misinformed, misguided or both. Buzzfeed recently ran an update on Russell and the work of his Invisible Children organization, still trying to recover from a furor that gave them a great deal of social media chatter, a lot of money and few results. Their folly, it seems, was to be far too simplistic in their own project. By not including nuance or context in their own film and mission, by avoiding the uncomfortable contradictions of Western intervention in Africa, Russell became a victim rather than an explorer of the bizarre.

And so, four decades after Schroeder’s trip to Uganda, it seems that the presence of white, Western filmmakers in Uganda almost by definition produces bizarre images. The initial colonization of Africa by European powers, after all, was a disastrous and immoral imposition of one culture onto many other cultures. The inevitable result was an endless series of strange juxtapositions, uncanny and unsettling. What has changed is not whether or not they are strange, but how documentarians express them.


General Idi Amin Dada was made in a simpler time, in which a French filmmaker could make a movie about an African dictator without really interrogating his own role as an outsider. Today, when Russell tried to avoid the awkwardness of his own naiveté and intervene in Africa directly, this reductive approach blew up in his face. The same thing can happen to any blissfully ignorant filmmaker, no matter how beautiful the film. Joe Callander’s Life After Death falters in its embarrassingly simplistic and fawning portrayal of American missionaries bringing light into Rwanda, and as a result its pretty images are flattened into empty, facile paintings of a world without conflict.

So what is the right way to do it in the 21st century? This year has already been a great one for documentaries about Africa. Goran Hugo Olsson’s Concerning Violence calls attention to decades of uncomfortable images of colonialism, matching them with the still-relevant words of Frantz Fanon. In Big Men, Rachel Boynton calls attention to the ridiculous roles played by everyone from Ghanaian and Nigerian politicians to British and American oil men, all of them out to make a buck. The same can be said of Orlando von Einsiedel’s powerful Virunga.

The legacy of General Idi Amin Dada should be its complexity, the way in which Amin and Schroeder butt heads. The presence of a Western documentary filmmaker in Africa will always be awkward, whether or not the filmmaker knows or admits it. Awkwardness leads to bizarre images, and it is in this complex and often uncomfortable images that one can find something resembling both art and truth.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.