KAMPALA, UGANDA – Piling up its international awards, The Last King of Scotland has come full circle, finally released in Uganda as a rare film experience, if not an unusual life-experience, where story and reality meld so much that it’s hard to know where one begins and the other ends.
The film’s success shows that Idi Amin Dada — that ever-strange despot who once told world leaders that, in their struggle for independence from England, “The Scots came to me because they know I’m the only leader in the world who speaks the truth” — is still Uganda’s best-known figure.
He was a charming and comical and demonic figure who gave himself various weird titles such as Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea while 300,000 Ugandans died or “disappeared” during his bloody reign of terror in the 1970s.
Chronicling Amin’s relationship with the fictitious character Nicholas Garrigan — a young Scottish doctor who goes to Uganda for adventure and discovers much more — the film is a fascinating character study, of two men really, with a theme that’s universal.
But what really gives The Last King of Scotland its strength are the Ugandans, and Uganda itself, where it was shot. Uganda, after all, is a movie backwater. Nobody comes here.
There’s simply no film infrastructure, in part because of the mess Amin left. Hundreds of indigenous African movies are shot annually in Nigeria, Africa’s so-called “Nollywood.” Then when they do come, Hollywood producers run to Kenya (The Constant Gardener), or South Africa (Hotel Rwanda). That’s where Last King of Scotland financiers initially wanted to shoot, for the tax breaks. Even Blood Diamond, set in Sierre Leone, was shot in Mozambique.
Instead, director Kevin MacDonald went to Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni. He wound up with not only permission to film, but full use of Uganda’s parliament and army. An unusual chemistry between country and filmmakers was born.
Cast and crew were reportedly overcome with emotion when seeing the stark reality of Ugandan life. And Forest Whitaker, who stayed in Uganda for months to interview Amin’s family, was able to harness this energy in his Oscar-winning performance.
For western viewers, this movie has perhaps made the world smaller. It’s accomplished what MacDonald said he loves to do: “bring audiences to new places they don’t know.” And it won an Oscar. Not bad for a film shot in a country that has just two small Cineplex theatres.
For Ugandan viewers, though, there’s been much more. Some have said they loathe the movie’s morerounded portrayal of Amin, the beast who was feared even long after he left.
Susan Watt, a McMaster University social worker working in Uganda in the mid-1990s, told me that even then, 15 years after Amin’s exile, if Ugandans mentioned him it was only “in hushed tones with raw emotion.”
But also, here in Uganda, there’s been more magic. In fact, the world now seems so small one can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it: a film shot literally around the corner from my theatre seat, put together on the other side of the Atlantic, then sent back — albeit a little late — to where I now watch.
Look, on screen, that British journalist is really Dr. Dick Stockley. I recently took my little boy to his Kampala clinic. There’s Mulago Hospital, where my wife has meetings. Hey, there’s Amin in the Sheraton’s pool.
I’ve swam there. And there’s Rosie, our British friend who’s sitting a row away, while also on screen as a hostage at Entebbe airport.
The whole thing seems nothing short of Twilight Zone material, an experience that, for me, came shortly after the film’s premiere in Uganda. That gala brought Whitaker and Mac-Donald to join President Museveni and his wife, who, by the way, covered her eyes during sex scenes in an obvious discomfort that’s shared by other Ugandans in this traditional culture.
Whatever one thinks of Amin, this movie shows producers are looking at Africa in a bigger way. True, Hollywood’s string of African realism in recent years hasn’t shown a pleasant image of life on this continent. But the bloody truth still seems better than those swarthy old movies made for whites, about whites living among two-dimensional Africans who often play little more than fresh lion-feed.