In his insert essay for the Criterion Collection’s recent Blu-ray release of Barbet Schroeder’s seminal General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait, J. Hoberman compares Schroeder’s chilling examination of its eponymous Ugandan dictator to Jean Rouch’s Les maîtres fous (1955), a ground-breaking ethnographic documentary shot in British-occupied Ghana in 1953 and 1954.
Rouch’s film explores the Hauka cult, a movement of native Ghanas who sought to steal the powers from their British overlords through trance-like mimicry of their military ceremonies. Hoberman asks if General Idi Amin Dada could be seen as a companion piece: is this the portrait of an African strongman who sought to reclaim the power stolen by European colonizers by becoming European himself? By dressing himself in their military finery, copying their pompous state spectacles, adopting the ingratiating public persona of their democratically-elected leaders? Was this tyrant who murdered hundreds of thousands of his own people during his “presidency” between 1971-1979 a creation of Western design, an African model of Europe’s own economic and military self-sufficiency?
Perhaps. But one must be careful not to read too deeply into Schroeder’s intentions. When he visited Uganda to shoot the film, he did so as Idi Amin’s honored guest. Given complete access by the publicity-hungry dictator, Schroeder did little more than passively record Idi Amin as he sauntered throughout his country, staging public spectacles, parties, military exercises, and cabinet meetings for the camera’s benefit. They shot whatever Idi Amin wanted them to. When shooting was finished, Schroeder even presented Idi Amin with an hour-long cut for his own personal use. When Schroeder released a second version in Europe with additional footage and narration, Idi Amin was furious and demanded extra cuts. When Schroder refused, Idi Amin arrested 200 French citizens in Uganda and held them hostage. With so many lives in the balance, the additional cuts were made. It was only after Idi Amin’s fall from power several years later that the film could be released in its intended format. The documentary’s subtitle “A Self Portrait” was quite literal: this was how Idi Amin wanted himself presented to the world.
Said image was, of course, one of a corrupt yet hypnotically charismatic buffoon. And while Hoberman was wise in comparing his buffoonery with the ethnographic experiments of the past, modern viewers have the luxury of a contemporary comparison: the Donald Trump presidency. Watching General Idi Amin Dada in the age of Trump can be surreal, for we see in Idi Amin an African prototype for the media savvy strongman persona that swept Trump into office in 2016. Both men could talk for hours in front of crowds without actually saying anything—in one scene Idi Amin addresses his cabinet and delivers a rambling speech peppered with such disjointed bon mots as “to be a spy is very bad” and “if I have to make decisions all the time, I will be very annoyed.” Both were experts at deflecting criticism for past offenses and inflammatory public statements—when Schroeder confronts Idi Amin over the time he said Hitler’s mistake was not killing enough Jews, he laughs uproariously and asks why they’re asking him questions about the past when people should be looking towards the future.
Both played to their xenophobic bases by marginalizing and disenfranchising minorities—we learn that in 1972 Idi Amin deported 80,000 Asian citizens, seized their businesses and property, and distributed it all to “native Ugandans.” And both understood the need for grandiose military spectacle. Though it hardly compares with Trump’s nuclear saber-rattling towards North Korea and his dream of Soviet-style military parades down Pennsylvania Avenue, one can’t help but see similarities with Idi Amin’s obsession with planning a preemptive military strike towards Israel, complete with an embarrassing military exercise where soldiers execute a mock assault on a tiny hill meant to represent the Golan Heights.
In both Idi Amin and Trump we see men quick to seize on the mobbish mentalities of crowds with impossible promises and machismo pandering. And in both we see men utterly, impossibly unqualified for their positions. What separates the two? Merely America’s constitutional checks and balances. In this way General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait is not just a crucial examination of a tyrant, but a warning that America should have heeded long ago. It’s a rare thing for an older movie to regain new political relevance. But there’s nothing ordinary about the Trump presidency, just as there was nothing ordinary about that African strongman who raped and pillaged his country, escaped into exile, and died peacefully in his late 70s surrounded by family.