KAMPALA, UGANDA – Now that The Last King of Scotland has piled up its international awards, and come full circle to show here, Ugandans can take a bow.
Really. The film’s success, including Forest Whitaker’s Oscar, shows that Idi Amin may still be Uganda’s best-known export, but the country itself has now had its own proverbial 15 minutes of fame, and on a world stage.
Outsiders can never really get enough of a crackpot like Amin, who had a rare capacity to be charming and comical and demonic all at once. It’s not your average despot who calls himself Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, while killing 300,000 of his countrymen, some personally with a sledgehammer.
But as Ugandans know too well, what is detached fascination from a distance is more personal and painful up close. This is why Ugandans can be proud.
A difficult chapter in their history has been scratched open, again.
Two aspects of the film intrigued me. One is how small it’s made the world. Director Kevin Macdonald said he loves to “bring audiences to new places they don’t know,” and this is what he did for millions of viewers abroad.
But watching at the Cineplex in Kampala, the world seems so small one can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it: a film shot literally around the corner from our theatre seats, put together on the other side of the Atlantic, then sent back to where we now watch.
Look, on screen. That British journalist is really Dr. Dick Stockley, who runs The Surgery on Acacia Avenue. And, hey, there’s Mulago Hospital. And now Amin is in the Sheraton’s pool. And look, Rosie Button, a family friend from Mukono who’s sitting just a row away, is on the big screen as a hostage at Entebbe Airport.
My other note of interest is the criticism from some, about this film’s take on Amin. Apparently there’s no issue with creating the fictitious character of Amin’s personal doctor, Scotsman Nicholas Garrigan, but there’s great offense with Amin, the beast, portrayed as too human. As one New Vision respondent put it, “Amin was not funny.”
Fair enough, considering the memories of loved ones lost in that terrible era. On the other hand, isn’t this the nature of evil? Hitler, after all, could laugh easily with children, and over in North Korea Kim Jong-Nam loves Mickey Mouse.
Yes, darkness has this way of settling in any human heart, and evil certainly doesn’t advertise itself by walking around with horns and a pitchfork. In this sense, the scriptwriters and Whitaker, who interviewed Amin’s family extensively, got it spot-on.
This is all what gives this film a ring of truth. More so, it’s authentic because it’s about Uganda, with Ugandans, in Uganda. Thank director Kevin Macdonald for bypassing more common shooting locations like Kenya and South Africa. Lack of film infrastructure here or not, he believed the story needed Uganda and was proved right.
And good for President Museveni for not just allowing shooting, but giving producers carte blanche access to structures like parliament and the army. He didn’t have to. After all, this all touches on what some might consider an embarrassing time, and this culture has certain views on shame and avoiding it.
Maybe that’s the bigger thought to take away. There are certain benefits to telling the truth, even a Hollywood rendition of it. Yes, give truth a forum, stand back, and watch the good things that can unfold.