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The Criterion Collection presents

General Idi Amin Dada (A Self Portrait) (1974)

"I work only in according to the God's instruction. It is the Voice of God."- General Idi Amin Dada

Stars: Idi Amin
Director: Barbet Schroeder

Manufacturer: Stream Santa Monica
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (onscreen executions)
Run Time: 01h:30m:26s
Release Date: 2002-05-14
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ B+A-B+ B-


DVD Review

In 1971, President Milton Obote of Uganda was overthrown by the deputy commander of the military, General Idi Amin Dada. Amin rapidly appointed himself President for Life, and over a period of eight years garnered for himself a reputation as a madman then equaled only by Pol Pot. Before his deposition in 1979—after the humiliating raid on the Entebbe Airport by Israeli forces and a failed invasion of Tanzania—Amin managed to slaughter over half a million of his own people, in addition to deporting all Jews and Asians and seizing their assets. Amin was finally forced out of power and today lives in comfort as a "guest" in Saudi Arabia.

Little of that, however, is seen in Barbet Schroeder's 1974 documentary made with the cooperation of Amin. Apparently on the expectation that Schroeder would make him a Triumph of the Will, Amin orchestrated a variety of spectacular events and military exercises to show off his power. The camera agreeably records these affairs, though it is plainly evident that they are merely an exercise in self-aggrandizement. A cabinet meeting features Amin declaring that the ministers must be loved or they will be removed, and specifically mentions the Foreign Minister, seen picking his nose with a pen. The voiceover then nonchalantly mentions that two weeks later the Foreign Minister's body was found washed up in a river.

Indeed, there is precious little commentary here, though it's amply clear even without a voiceover that Amin was quite a dangerous character. At the same time, he is affable, good-humored and proud of his country. The paper inserts from Criterion refer to Amin as a "psychotic," but this is too easily dismissive. Certainly he demonstrates inflated self-worth and a love of naked power, but what politician can this not be said about? Indeed, his quickness to joke, tendency to speak in non sequitur and willingness to trust portents for decisions reminds one of Ronald Reagan. For in a parallel to Reagan's astrologers, Amin apparently believed that he had the gift of prophecy in dreams, deporting the Jews and Asians based on just such a prophecy.

Perhaps the most chilling portion of the documentary relates to Amin's virulent anti-Semitism and activism on behalf of the Palestinian cause. Believing in the genuineness of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, he seems obsessed with eliminating the Israelis, holding military exercises simulating seizure of the Golan Heights. Given his advocacy in 1974 of attacking Israel with suicide bombers, one wonders what influence he may still have in Palestinian terrorist circles. Offscreen, he publicly embraced the Black September group after the murder of Israeli athletes at Munich, an event skipped over here. Instead, there's a steady stream of native performances and dances that Amin uses to demonstrate how beloved he is of his people, though in many instances, such as when he meets with a doctors' organization, the pure terror on their faces is evident. With good reason: this is a bona fide snuff film, with people being shot in public executions, so the sensitive should be aware of the content. If that weren't enough for you, be warned: Amin plays the accordion.

The importance of the picture is undercut by the fact it was shot so early in Amin's career. While there is some indication of his reign of terror, the true extent of the horrors wasn't quite apparent yet then, just as Triumph of the Will was early enough in the Nazi reign that the scope of Hitler's capacity for using the propaganda machine for atrocity wasn't yet clear. One is struck with the parallels with Hannah Arendt's study of Adolf Eichmann and the banality of evil. Branding Amin as psychotic does a disservice by taking away the mirror from our own leaders, just as the same label is placed on Saddam Hussein and Muammar Khadafy. What these leaders point out is the danger of concentrated power, especially when combined with an overly ambitious politician. The documentary, when combined with a knowledge of Amin's acts that aren't covered here (but are addressed in the additional documentary), make the film truly remarkable in its portrait of power and its abuses.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The original 16mm Ektachrome camera positive is used as the source material, and the director comments that the resultant picture is far better than any 35mm blowups have ever appeared. While I can't verify this, the color is generally excellent (though occasionally washed out a bit by sunlight). One segment featuring dancers in orange jumpsuits is particularly striking, as are the multicolored medals that Amin awarded himself. As one would expect for a 16mm documentary, grain abonds, and it's faithfully represented here. Black levels are surprisingly good, with plenty of detail visible. The video bit rate runs at about 5 Mbps generally, sometimes spiking higher.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The original 1.0 mono sounds fine for live sound recorded onsite under less than optimal conditions. While the dialogue is generally quite clear, it is not without hiss and mild background noise. Apparently Criterion has cleaned up the audio, since it sounds better than I had expected it to.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+ 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 17 cues and remote access
Music/Song Access with 0 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Production Notes
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Timeline of Ugandan history
Extras Review: Vital to the presentation here is a 26m:44s documentary featuring a modern interview with director Barbet Schroeder. He manages to fill in some of the gaps and omissions of the main film, as well as to provide it with some much-needed perspective in light of subsequent events. Schroeder also discusses how he uses Amin as a political everyman; in his lust for power he is, as the missing last line of the film would state, a mirror of the colonial powers and the impact that they have had upon the African continent. Schroeder also discusses the three cuts that Amin insisted upon (and enforced by taking hostage all of the French nationals in the country). These cuts have been restored here, except for the last line, which Schroeder indicates is lost (but he recites it in the documentary). That loss is a shame, since it bears an impact and its absence truly hamstrings the effect of the conclusion. Schroeder also goes into the procedures of filming the picture, Amin's welcoming of its filming, and its reception. I found this to be much more interesting than the film proper, in fact, and highly recommend that anyone watching the main film immediately proceed to the supplements. A set of production notes and a timeline of Ugandan history are also provided.

Extras Grade: B-

Final Comments

The documentary about the documentary really is more interesting than the main feature, which suffers from a lack of perspective due to the date of its filming. The transfer certainly is good as one could expect considering the circumstances of its making in 1974.

Mark Zimmer 2002-05-29