Ugandan dictator beats other African strongmen to the silver screen
The Lord of All Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, Conqueror of the British Empire, Field Marshal Alhaji Doctor Dada VC, DSO, MC, and His Excellency President for Life has refused to die.
At least on film.
On October 18, the latest account of the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada's bizarre and brutal nine-year reign will headline the London Film Festival. Labelled The Last King of Scotland, it joins The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin (a global hit by Kenyan film maker Sharad Patel), Idi Amin by Frenchman Barbet Schroeder and books that document Amin's erratic behaviour in his private and public lives.
Writers captured this African Nero in Amin's Uganda, Talk of the Devil, State of Blood: The Inside Story of Idi Amin, Snake Pit, Governing Uganda and General Idi Amin Dada, amongst others.
The Last King of Scotland revolves around Nicholas Carrigan, a young Scottish civil servant (played by James Mc Avoy), who is Amin's personal physician.
But what makes Amin, the theme, so attractive even three years after his death? Why isn't there much interest in other African dictators, notably Sani Abacha of Nigeria, Malawi's Hastings Kamuzu Banda, Jean-Bedel Bokassa of Central Africa Republic, Liberia's Samuel Doe and Zaire's Mobuto Sese Seko?
"Amin was more of a comedian," Sharad said in a telephone interview from London yesterday. "You cannot quite classify him as having been a serious leader. He was odd, and this interests film makers."
The title of this latest film is borrowed from Amin's obsession with anything Scottish. He had declared himself "King of Scotland", banned hippies and mini-skirts, and once attended the burial of a Saudi Arabian royal in a kilt, the traditional Scottish attire. He also gave his children Scottish names, notably Mackintosh, McLaren, Campbell and McKenzie.
"Amin baffled and continues to baffle the world," says Joseph Olita, who starred as Amin in Rise and Fall.
He was also known for his abrupt, humorous and farcical pronouncements. Big Daddy once told Julius Nyerere, then Tanzanian president and enemy, that were he (Nyerere) a woman, he would marry him because he was pretty.
At the height of the Watergate Scandal in the US, Amin sent a "get well soon" telegram to President Richard Nixon (later forced to resign), and told then Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, to "pack her knickers". His actions were equally bizarre – staging a mock assault on a small hill in Uganda representing the Golan Heights and playing the accordion in a jazz band at a formal dinner.
Amin was also known for snuffing out real and perceived troublemakers (about half a million people are said to have died during his reign). He is said to have kept the severed heads of his detractors in refrigerators.
"Amin's intentions were good but his mode of executing them was wrong," says Olita who prides himself as the 'perfect Amin look-alike', thanks to his bulk, dark complexion, commanding gaze and double furrows on his cheeks. "Amin was like two faces of the same coin."
He dreamt of a United States of Africa, boosted by his mountainous ego. "He wasn't suffering from inferiority complex. All his wives, for instance were ex-Makerere University students," says Olita, who also played a role in Mississipi Masala, which starred Denzel Washington. His role in Rise and Fall of Idi Amin earned him the Best Actor Award in Los Angeles Film festival in 1980.
Sharad says that Amin's transformation from a disciplined soldier in the colonial British army (which he had joined in 1946) to a tyrant of global disrepute also accentuate the interest that film makers harbour about him. "There might even be more productions about him in future."
According to the BBC website, Amin was one of the first "native"commissioned officers. He rose up the ranks to the post of army chief of staff in Milton Obote's regime. By then, he had achieved celebrity status, being Uganda's heavyweight boxing champion and leading the Obote putsch that saw the Kabaka, Sir Edward Mutesa flee to the UK. He capitalised on this fame, overthrowing Obote in 1971 and declaring himself "president for life."
Bit off more than he could chew
Though the outside world had largely turned a blind eye on his murderous ways, he bit off more than he could chew in 1976 by providing a safe haven to Palestinian terrorists at Entebbe who had hijacked an El Al plane carrying mostly Israeli nationals. Israeli commandos stormed Entebbe, destroyed his air force and freed the hostages.
The following year, Amin invaded Tanzania. Tanzanian forces and Ugandan rebels fought back and overthrew him. He escaped to Saudi Arabia where he lived till his death in 2003.
"Amin is somebody who embodies all of Hollywood and media's wildest fears about the continent," Kevin Macdonald, the producer of the latest Amin film is quoted as saying in a recent edition of The Times.
The Last King of Scotland is based on British journalist Giles Foden's award-winning novel by the same name. The book won the Whitbread First Novel of the Year award in 1998. Forrest Whitaker, who appeared in a guest role in the TV medical drama ER, plays Amin.
In the movie, a young Scottish doctor, (Garrigan) comes to Uganda to escape boredom and settles for a remote medical clinic. Uganda is on the cusp of political change, Amin having overthrown Obote's government and declared himself president.
Amin and Garrigan meet by accident, literally. Garrigan chances on Amin's motorcade when one of the cars hits a cow and Garrigan is called upon to fix Amin's injured hand. While the cow lies mooing in pain, Garrigan ends its misery courtesy of Amin's gun. Amin is both impressed and annoyed by the bravado: Garrigan had actually snatched the gun from him, but all the same, is gallant enough to take charge of the tense situation. The fact that he is a Scot further endears him to Amin. When he is offered the position of personal physician, Garrigan initially declines but the trappings of power are too attractive for Garrigan to resist.
According to critics, this is a "somewhat uneven film. Garrigan is a weak and inherently unlikeable character who makes innumerable stupid and selfish decisions."
One of these stupid decisions is flirting with Amin's third wife, Kay, which "ultimately makes him a complicit cog in Amin's brutal, chaotic machine."
This movie, critics say, focuses too much on what Amin did –or failed to do – for his country, at the expense of what drove his actions. "Because we see the story from Garrigan's perspective, the film focuses more on his plight, the danger he's in, and the increasing uncertainty that he will escape Uganda with his life and his ethics intact, than on what drives Amin," writes one reviewer.
The movie is also accused of propagating entrenched beliefs of Westerners trying to "better" life in third-world countries, here seen in Garrigan.
Amin's atrocities in graphic detail
The1974 documentary Idi Amin was made with Amin's support and participation. In contrast, Rise and Fall of Idi Amin, which observers say has been the best biographical account so far, was released only a year after the "butcher of Africa" was deposed from power. It recreates Amin's atrocities in graphic detail – eating human flesh, forcing children to view their dead mother, making love in a car to name but a few.
"Making this movie was not easy. It was being viewed as a political statement and it was very difficult to get permission to film in the Uganda," says Sharad.
Others say that Amin, the theme will is more famous than Uganda, the country, thus the continued interest in him. But Colonel Bernard Rwehururu, the defence attache at the Ugandan Embassy in Nairobi, who worked under Amin says his ghost should be let to lie in peace. "I knew the man personally. I had joined the army when Amin was the chief of staff and some of the films contain exaggerations"
Driven by fidelity to history
In 2002, Col. Rwehururu released Cross To The Gun, a book about his experiences in the army under Amin. "Now that he is dead, I don't want to pour salt on old wounds, says the Colonel.
The success of films on dictators is mostly driven by fidelity to historical detail and a wise choice of the cast.
Other notable accounts of despotic regimes immortalised on film are Moloch, about Hitler and Taurus about Vladimir Lenin (both by Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov).
Human Remains, is a documentary on five of the most reviled dictators of the last century, namely Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, Francisco Franco and Mao Tse Tung. It dwells on their personal lives – favourite foods, films, habits and sexual preferences, with intentional omission of the horrors for which these men were responsible.
The Last King Of Scotland is the first feature film by Macdonald, who won an Oscar for his 1999 documentary on the Munich Olympics massacre, One Day In September.
The movie is expected to match the feat achieved by The Constant Gardener last year, which being the London festival's opening film, went on to win awards at the 2006 Bafta and Oscar ceremonies.