What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Not the last dictator of the world

MStFB film review of 'The Last King of Scotland' (DNA Films, the UK, 2006, 121 min.)

I have seen 'The Last King of Scotland' for the second time this week. I was so much under its influence I had to see it a second time in such a short span of time. It's primarily a very good movie, but also a memorable lesson about the power of structure in one's life. Scotsman Nicholas Garrigan goes to Uganda and literally by accident meets General Idi Amin, the man who has just seized power there (we're in 1971). They quickly befriend each other, so the mostly fictive story goes. Humour and charisma play their part in that development, as well as, I think, both men's false conceptions of each other. Young Nicholas went to Africa for the adventure and to see some good 'Africans'; Idi Amin welcomes in him a brave 'Scotsman'. While they will discover in each other qualities they wouldn't have thought were there, it's mostly the power of structural factors that turns their relationship into a nightmare for Nicholas. Idi Amin's position, as the leader of a country that serves as one of the many playgrounds of foreign power interests, is always threatened. The danger of a coup is constantly looming around and Amin becomes paranoid. Soon he can hardly trust anyone. Initially that's the reason he relies more and more on Nicholas. But as Nicholas' position grows in importance as a result, so is his trustfulness put into question by the doubts a man in power like Idi Amin shall always harbour towards men who influence his decisions. And the occasional show of doubt or threat soon starts to alienate from him Nicholas, too.
The Idi Amin portrayed in the film is brutal enough, but the film provides more of a circumstance-oriented explanation for that than regular, more personality-oriented accounts. If there is a kind of personality-based element in the film's interpretation of events, it's a kind of instability one can always notice in Amin's behaviour, and, on the basis of the film, can trace back mostly to the times when 'the British Army was Amin's home' (historically that is correct, Amin was there with the British Army fighting revolts in both Somalia and Kenya). He must have had some shocking memories from those times, but of course he was also likely completely reshaped, re-socialised by a military organisation that will leave its marks for a life on anyone, let alone on somebody who has always been a bit vulnerable. So, in the film Amin seems to suffer from veterans' all-too-common Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, which produces the explosive mix of comrade-like friendliness and cold-blooded killer attitude between which he switches uncomfortably but fast and unexpectedly.
That's a rather interesting way to portray Idi Amin. Film-wise I appreciated it very much instead of the more usual 'third world idiot strongman' sort of portrayal, that could have exploitatively brought in issues of cannibalism Amin was occasionally accused with and the likes of that (take for the best example the rumour, wide-spread in his time in Uganda, that he ate his most beloved son's heart at the advice of a witchdoctor). For a change that's very good. It's also the right direction in which audiences should look, given that traditional West-centric views of the 'developing world' are too often shaped by an all-too-comfortable condemnation of the autocrats emerging there, by a lack of will to at least try to understand that if it's more a common phenomenon there than elsewhere, then that's that way for reasons beyond the given autocrats and the local circumstances from which they emerged, too. Robert Rotberg, for instance, writes passionately about the 'hand of man' or 'human agency' in his oft-cited works on state failure. He is implicitly suggesting 'bad people' should be blamed, and 'wrong decisions', for all the ills of the so-called developing world. Was strongman-rule an accident in Iraq? Was corrupt leadership an accident in Zaire/DRC's long history of leadership changes and fragmentation? The Last King of Scotland may be wrong as to details about the actual Idi Amin himself, but it might still be an insightful, reflective portrayal of the 'brutal, third world strongman' the Western movie-goer wants to see.
As to reactions in Uganda, of which you may read here, they appear to be rather negative. Ironically, but understandably, that's exactly because of that which I have just deemed fortunate in the film. That Idi Amin's deeds are rationalised, and he is not showed as cruel enough and so on, some say in criticism. Not to mention that most of the Ugandans playing walk-on roles in the film, some of whom apparently dreamed of being discovered by the rich cinema world, were paid only about 18 euros a day and treated with disrespect at times, at least so the complaints go; that, too, probably worked to create a bad reputation for the film in Uganda.
Here's a song for you to have a rest after reading this post. From YouTube, as almost always.
'Thou shalt give equal worth to tragedies that occur in non-English-speaking countries as to those that occur in English-speaking countries. Thou shalt remember that guns, bitches and bling were never part of the four elements and never will be' (quoted from the song).
Thou shalt always think for yourselves, regardless of what oft-cited works suggest to you, if I may add.

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