A Film Star in Kampala, Conjuring Amin’s Ghost
KAMPALA, Uganda, Feb. 17 — This year, the Oscar buzz has made it all the way to Kampala.
On Saturday, none other than Forest Whitaker, a leading contender for best actor, parted a crowd of paparazzi in front of a chic hotel here in Uganda’s capital, and then strutted down a stretch of genuine red carpet for the official opening of “The Last King of Scotland.”
Official being the key word. Because the movie, about the blood-soaked reign of Uganda’s mercurial dictator, Idi Amin, actually arrived a few weeks ago, via shrink-wrapped, bootlegged DVDs shipped in from China. Already, it has created quite a stir in Kampala’s tin-roofed video halls.
Ugandans, struck by Mr. Whitaker’s likeness to Amin, are moved by the scenes of an era they would like to forget. Above all else, they are proud that one of this past year’s surprise Hollywood hits was about their country and filmed in their country. Now, nearly five months after its release in the United States, it has finally landed here, and landed in style.
Some people, like Davis Kizito, the manager of an orphanage, have seen the film three times.
“It was wonderful,” Mr. Kizito said as he stepped out of a showing on Friday night with a baby in his arms. “I’m going to watch it again.”
Like others, Mr. Kizito said that after all the Rambo movies, Hindi films and second-rate European action flicks he has sat through, it was a joy to see his own country on film and to learn more about an era of Uganda’s past, much of which is still shrouded in mystery.
Amin, a charismatic army sergeant and fearsome boxer, seized power in 1971, promising to shake off the vestiges of colonialism. Instead, he plunged his country into a bloodbath, brutally eliminating his enemies — sometimes quite personally, with a hammer — until he was overthrown in 1979. More than 300,000 people are believed to have been killed.
The movie tracks those events through a fictional relationship with a young, gullible Scottish doctor, but one reason it seems to resonate with audiences here is because so much of it is true.
“This is not a bad attempt at history,” said Henry Kyemba, the author of “A State of Blood,” a book he published in exile in 1977 about his years as a minister in Amin’s government.
The Amin family, meanwhile, is not so happy. Relatives said that the former president, who called himself the “Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea” and “The Last King of Scotland,” among other things, was not the madman that Mr. Whitaker portrayed him as being.
“I don’t care what people say,” said Taban Amin, the eldest of Amin’s more than three dozen children. “Whitaker doesn’t look like my father. He’s too short and his teeth are wrong.”
As for the festivities on Saturday, Taban Amin seemed a little hurt that he was not invited.
“I mean, we’re family after all,” he said.
Some Ugandans said the attention surrounding the film was bittersweet, because many people in the West would now associate Uganda with a shameful period of its history.
But those days are over. It took some years after Amin was deposed (he died in exile in Saudi Arabia in 2003) for Uganda to pull itself together, but today it is one of the safest and most stable countries in Africa. It is a leader in the fight against AIDS, and such a reliable Western ally that as soon as donor nations suggested sending African peacekeepers into chaotic Somalia, Uganda was the first to volunteer.
These days, instead of bodies bobbing down the Nile, there are European white-water rafters. Kampala is home to Woolworths and ShopRite and several $300-a-night hotels.
“It’s hard to believe that was our country,” said Sisto Rwamafigi, a 25-year-old clerk at a video store who saw the movie.
It was only because of Uganda’s stability that the filmmakers from Fox Searchlight Pictures could bring a major entourage here to shoot on location. That is not always the case with African movies. Take “Black Hawk Down,” the big-budget action picture made about the infamous battle in Mogadishu in which 18 American servicemen were killed. It was filmed in Morocco.
Originally, this movie too was going to be filmed somewhere besides its setting, in South Africa, which has one of the biggest film industries on the continent. But after a research trip to Uganda, the producers decided to “take the movie home,” as they put it.
Mr. Whitaker said it was enormously helpful to walk through the actual places Amin haunted and meet actual people he victimized.
“All these things come together in this alchemic way,” Mr. Whitaker said at a pre-screening news conference. “The character comes to life and the spirit is brought forth.”
Whatever he did, many Ugandans said, it worked. Mr. Whitaker nailed Amin’s complexities, they said, and unlike previous portrayals that were one-dimensionally evil, this role revealed some of Amin’s positive qualities, helping explain how he rose to power in the first place.
“Amin made an attempt of ensuring the economy was in the hands of the indigenous people,” said Dixon Kamukama, a history professor at Makerere University in Kampala. “It was crude. But it was the beginning of what we needed.”
As soon as “The Last King of Scotland” opened in the United States in September, the buzz around Mr. Whitaker began. He heads into the Oscars as the favorite for best actor, having already won a Golden Globe award and one from the Screen Actors Guild.
Ugandans got a taste of Oscar extravagance on Saturday when a public relations firm from South Africa organized a day of over-the-top festivities at the Garden City Cineplex, the only multiscreen theater in the country. There were preparties and after-parties, with Uganda’s elite tipping back Champagne over zebra-print tables and young musicians pounding goatskin drums.
Even Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, made an appearance, strutting down the red carpet, which his security staff had supplied specifically for the event, along with three truckloads of soldiers. But the tickets at the Cineplex cost roughly $5, far beyond the reach of most Ugandans.
So most who see “The Last King of Scotland” will see it in video halls like the one in Kampala that showed it Friday night, where tickets cost 20 cents, seats are long wooden benches and refreshments are not giant Hershey bars and buttered popcorn but handfuls of peanuts and plastic bags of sweetened milk.
About 200 moviegoers sat transfixed in a dark room watching Mr. Whitaker skulk across a 30-inch television screen. They gasped during the torture sessions and giggled during the sex scenes.
Just as the film was coming to a peak — with the doctor trying to escape Amin’s iron grip — the television screen blinked off. It was a Kampala moviegoer’s nightmare: a sudden power failure.
The audience streamed out into the muggy, buggy night, amid some confusion about whether they had seen the end of the film or not.
“It was great,” said Ismael Seguya, a butcher. “But can you help me see Part 2?”