Watching Forest Whitaker's performance as Ugandan military dictator Idi Amin in 2006's slightly disappointing The Last King Of Scotland, and then watching this, Barbet Schroeder's fantastic 1974 documentary about the same man, you have to applaud Whitaker's Oscar winning depiction. He not only grasped the man's sense of humour and desire for approval, but his terrifying ferocity which led to Amin being one of the most loathed and feared rulers in recent history. Yet if ever an Oscar was truly deserved, the Academy should have handed Idi Amin himself the award for Best Actor in 1974. The term 'autoportrait' (self-portrait) is cleverly used in the title, as that is exactly what it is. This might seem like a fly-on-the-wall depiction of a man narrating through his everyday duties, yet the film is very much controlled as much as Kevin Macdonald's fictional film was. Only it's not the director that is calling the shots in this film.
The film is one-half cinema verite and one half an Amin vanity project, and plaudits to Schroeder to let it happen, as it reveals much more about Amin as it would if he had no participation at all, other than in front of the camera. In one scene, Amin arrives by helicopter at a small town and is greeted by a horde of screaming townsfolk, waving flags and clapping in anticipation. However, we are told, the scene has been completely set up for the documentary by Amin. Without repeatedly informing us of the influence he had on the making of the film, and on Schroeder himself, we are allowed to sit back and watch this monster bend and manipulate the truth for his own benefit. He is seen in a meeting with his ministers laying out his ideals and his expectations for his country. In this scene, Amin plays the role of both serious and committed leader, and approachable joker. He warns one of his ministers that he will take action and replace him should he fail to inform him about an aspect of his work again, to which the minister stares down and nods in understanding. We are informed by the narrator that his body is found dead in the River Nile a couple of weeks later.
The film depicts both the political and social sides of Amin. As well as his claims to being the 'last king of Scotland' and his invitation to Queen Elizabeth to visit Africa and meet 'a real man', it also shows the increasingly uneasy relationship that Amin and Uganda had at the time with neighbouring country Tanzania and their President Julius Nyerere. Amin would have you believe otherwise, laughing off these claims and joking that the two have a friendly and informal relationship (the two countries would eventually go to war between 1978 and 1979, leading to the overthrowing of Amin's regime). We also see him with his children from many wives (he was a polygamist, marrying six women) and taking Schroeder and his crew on a boat trip down the River Nile, pointing out the wildlife and talking about Uganda being the most beautiful place on the planet.
It is a terrifying insight in how politicians and military rules can use the media as a propaganda tool, and what a lack of respect they have for their people. You get the feeling throughout the film that Schroeder would like to pose more trying questions to Amin, yet because of the likelihood that the film would be shut down should he be challenged, Schroeder is forced to indulge Amin's desires. In a satisfying climax, which sees Amin allowing himself to be questioned by a board of doctors in a bid to show his accessibility, the camera zooms in close as he sits speechless after being confronted with a difficult question, and the volume on his microphone is turned up to maximum to capture every quiver in his breathing, and the thumping of his ever increasing heartbeat.
The documentary was forced to be edited and released in two versions - one hour-long version in Uganda, and the full length version everywhere else. Amin sent spies to France to make extensive notes on the full film, which lead to the kidnapping of over a hundred French citizens residing in Uganda. According the Schroeder, he was forced to re-edit the film in order for the captives to be released. The film lay in this state until Amin's fall from power, to which the film was restored and re-released in it's entirety.
It could almost be viewed as a companion piece to Leni Reifenstahl's landmark propaganda documentary Triumph Of The Will, both of which show the length that military rulers are willing to go in order to manipulate their people. It is confusing as to why Schroeder would go on to make standard Hollywood pap such as Kiss Of Death and Murder By Number, as this is a fascinating insight into the mind of a fascinating man.