Faber & Faber book cover, The Last King of Scotland, detail of illustraton by Steve Caplin, 1998.
The Last King of Scotland, director Kevin McDonald's film about Idi Amin's notorious presidency (1971-79), recently opened in Uganda to great fanfare. The VIP screening took place on a Saturday evening at Kampala's Cineplex Theatre, with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (who returned to Uganda with the liberating Tanzanian army in 1979) in attendance, as well as Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, and many of the Ugandan nationals who'd been cast in the film. Not that there'd be too many surprises for the average person: the première, with admission at 11,000 shillings ($7) per person, was not targeted to the average Ugandan. Instead, most people were seeing the film on bootleg DVDs (at 8,000 shillings or $5 apiece) that had been circulating in Kampala for weeks. Only days after its initial Ugandan screening, the film was showing in local movie shabeen for as little as 500 shillings (30¢).
But to say that this is less than a national phenomenon in Uganda would be an understatement. Previous movies about Africa familiar to international audiences — Out of Africa, The Constant Gardener — are often considered "settler literature" (telling more about the European experience of Africa than about Africa itself), and were actually shot in Kenya. This newest film is the first major production made in Uganda to receive widespread attention, and it had the local Daily Monitor boasting that, "...with the exposure The Last King of Scotland has given Uganda, it could also become a leading player in the movie industry in the region."
And why not? Not only did Whitaker win the Oscar for Best Actor, but dozens of Ugandan actors received a credit line. A local choir, famous dance troupe, and Kampala's favorite house band are featured in it too — not to mention an army of colorful local personalities, including my doctor who plays a British journalist.
I was a student in London in the 70s, a decade of glam rock and disco, and I distinctly remember thinking that Uganda was the last place on earth I ever wanted to visit. My friend Quentin Caron, now a well-known landscape designer, did a passable imitation of "Big Daddy" Amin. It's not that human rights atrocities were any more funny then than they are now, as much as the fact that the man himself — who loved all things Scottish — fueled endless parodies on Saturday Night Live. In fact, Amin once had a London jeweler fashion him a copy of the Victoria's Cross (an award he'd not, in fact, earned) to add to his collection of personal military adornments.
Nile Center, Kampala, scene of mass tortures. Photograph by David Stairs, 2007.
The story of Amin's eight-year dictatorship is filled with dramatic moments. As the initial euphoria over Amin's arrival shifted to the certain knowledge that not only opposition but also loyal supporters were being killed, long-suffering Ugandans settled into a fatalistic waiting-game. The dictator's reign of terror played out on a world stage where Ugandans weren't the only victims: Amin humiliated the British, befriended Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, and challenged the Israelis. Along the way, his State Research Bureau gruesomely murdered hundreds of thousands of his fellow countrymen and expelled countless others.
Crested Towers, an Idi Amin building project. Photograph by David Stairs, 2007.
African politics have long been dominated by a tribal model of governance: so how does ultimate power come to reside in the hands of a man like Amin? Big men with deep voices (and at 6'6" and 250 pounds, Amin was indeed that) are the African equivalent of a 6'4" Texan in America (ironically, Forest Whitaker is from Texas too). Not unlike a Texas preacher, there's a scene in the film where Amin whips up an enthusiastic crowd by simply deploying his charisma and booming voice. Add to physical stature the resentment and unbridled ambition of a fatherless boy; schooling by the military; suppressing the Mau-Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s as a member of the King's Africa Rifles; and, it's easy to see how a shrewd thug could out-maneuver some of the country's more educated players, like Professor Apollo Milton Obote.
The screenplay's fidelity to Giles Foden's book (winner of the 1998 Whitbread Prize for a first novel, and enormously popular at the time of its publication) is oddly uneven. Clearly, a certain amount of telescoping is bound to occur when a period of eight years is squeezed into 120 minutes: but what's tricky is what happens when historical fact is sacrificed for dramatic effect. Expulsion of all Asiatics happened in 1972, for example, shortly after Amin took over. (Amin's edict principally targeted some 60,000 Asians from the Indian subcontinent who held British passports.) Yet the Palestinian hijacking of an Air France jetliner did not take place immediately following this event, but four years later — in 1976. It precipitated the international crisis at Entebbe airport that resulted in a daring Israeli commando raid, making a fuming Idi Amin look even more ridiculous.
Entrance to Ugandan Parliament building. Photograph by David Stairs, 2007.
Kevin McDonald insisted [on record] that his film be shot in Uganda, despite pressure to locate it in Kenya, or even South Africa. He argued that the feeling would be difficult to capture anywhere else, and that Kampala, with much of its 70s architecture still intact, was the perfect setting. The pool at the Sheraton Hotel, and the entrances to Parliament are scripted into key scenes. Other structures shown in the movie (Obote's UPC building and Amin's Nile Conference Center, where many of his victims were tortured) are still in use today.
Swimming pool at the Sheraton Hotel. Photograph by David Stairs, 2007.
Visually, the film is deeply faithful to its featured country. The opening shots of an overland bus ride perfectly capture the gorgeous scenery, visualizing the life in many Ugandan small towns. The director and cinematographer also went to great lengths to reinforce the pictorial quality of 1970s footage: film quality is grainy and favors the red end of the spectrum, as so many movies from this period tend to do. McDonald won an earlier Oscar for his documentary work, and he is intimately familiar with the dictator's newsreels — from his celebrated ride on a palanquin borne by white men, to his frequently riotous press conferences. Amin's appetite for cars, women, and food were renowned, and have been accurately captured in this film. Less clear is the justification [again on record] for his close ties to the Arab world: unlike his Ugandan predecessors, Amin was a Muslim.
There's a scene early on in the recent James Bond release, Casino Royale (which ostensibly takes place just before Amin came to power), in which a group of Europeans visit a guerilla camp somewhere in Africa. The words "Mbale, Uganda" flash across the screen, identifying the alleged location: in the real world, however, the peaceful Mbale region has never been the site of guerilla activity. (It also bears mention that the entire faux-Ugandan scene in Casino Royale was actually not filmed in Africa at all, but in the Bahamas.) Obviously, things like chronology and geography share blurry boundaries in the film industry, where history can be rewritten in an instant. And indeed, some may feel that The Last King of Scotland chronicles a decade better off forgotten: but I'd argue the opposite. Here, at least, an attempt is made to tell the story against a backdrop of Uganda as it really looks, as it once was. And hopefully, as it never will be again.
David Stairs, founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project, is working in Africa for Designers Without Borders through June 2007.
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