Crowds Flock to Oscar-Honored Film About Idi Amin
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 27, 2007; A01
KAMPALA, Uganda, Feb. 26 -- She was 11 time zones away from Hollywood, but movie buff Marion E. Busingye could not wait to see if "The Last King of Scotland" -- a rare and terrifying look at Uganda's bloody political history -- would win an Oscar.
So she stayed up. And up. And up. And up.
Shortly after 8 a.m., she got her reward: Forest Whitaker won the Best Actor award for his portrayal -- by turns charming, paranoid and shockingly cruel -- of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.
"Yeah!" she shouted while slumping groggily into her couch, recalled Busingye, 33. Then she fell asleep.
So climaxed nine days of extraordinary attention to a film that, though intended mainly for Western audiences, has captivated Ugandans unaccustomed to seeing their lives portrayed on the big screen. And Uganda is just the latest of a string of African nations, including South Africa, Rwanda, Kenya and Sierra Leone, to be featured in award-winning films in recent years as the continent became a popular source of fresh story lines.
"From an African point of view, I'm excited," said Busingye, managing director of Uganda's only multiplex theater, which also is showing the Oscar-nominated "Blood Diamond," another popular film set in Africa. "They're getting better," she said of Hollywood's efforts.
Since Feb. 17, when Whitaker attended the premiere of "The Last King of Scotland" here with President Yoweri Museveni, the movie has spawned front-page stories, painful reminiscences and occasional rebukes while also acquainting younger Ugandans with a history their parents and teachers had rarely discussed with such vividness.
Hawkers ran out of pirated copies of the movie. Weekend showings at the multiplex were sold out. The book version, though substantially different, flew out the doors of bookstores, as did a more sober, factual account of the Amin era, "A State of Blood," by Amin's former health minister, Henry Kyemba.
The stir has provoked what amounts to a public relations counteroffensive by Amin's relatives, who have criticized the movie for portraying the former leader as more vicious than he was in real life. But many other Ugandans, including Kyemba, voice the opposite complaint -- that Amin got off too easily in Whitaker's portrayal because the actor humanized a dictator many here recall as monstrous.
Kyemba has been outspoken about the film's many deviations from fact, but even he conceded that the real story might not have made for a popular movie. "The things are so horrendous," he said.
Amin, a crude but charismatic army officer, took power in a 1971 coup. By the time he was driven from power in 1979, his regime had killed an estimated 300,000 Ugandan intellectuals, opposition figures and members of rival ethnic groups, and the economically important Indian community had been forced into exile. A country once considered a bastion of culture and learning in East Africa had become an international pariah.
Amin also had a flair for needling Western sensibilities, as when he announced that he was not merely president-for-life of Uganda and "Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea," but also king of Scotland. In 1974, Amin proclaimed himself the head of a Scottish resistance movement calling for secession from Britain. The Scottish national anthem was often played at Ugandan state functions under Amin, and a special military detail marched in kilts.
This odd twist became the genesis for the novel "The Last King of Scotland," by Giles Foden, the main character of which, Nicholas Garrigan, bears a slight resemblance to Bob Astles, a former British soldier who was an adviser to Amin during his dictatorship. (The differences are not trifling: The fictitious Garrigan was a Scottish doctor who became known as Amin's "white monkey." Astles was an English aviation expert who became known as Amin's "white rat.")
Despite the film's flights into fiction, the movie was shot in Kampala, and for many Ugandans, the familiar hillsides and images of the parliament building lent it an air of reality. Museveni praised the film as accurate at the premiere here. And a senior adviser to Museveni, John Nagenda, said Monday that Whitaker's portrayal was "uncanny."
"The way he got into Amin was extraordinary," Nagenda said.
The recent run of African-themed films has focused heavily on horrors. "Hotel Rwanda," which was nominated for three Oscars in 2005, chronicled that nation's 1994 experience of genocide. "Yesterday," which was nominated for an Oscar the same year, tackled South Africa's devastating AIDS epidemic, and "Tsotsi," which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film last year, was about crime and redemption in South Africa.
"The Constant Gardener," for which Rachel Weisz won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar last year, was about the misdeeds of a fictional pharmaceutical company in Kenya and featured chilling scenes from Sudan's war-ravaged Darfur region. Sierra Leone's brutal civil war, which ran from 1991 to 2002, provided the setting for "Blood Diamond," which was nominated for five Oscars but won none Sunday night.
Perhaps because of the downbeat themes, movies about Africa often have not generated as much box office business on the continent as more generic Hollywood blockbusters. But "Blood Diamond" has done well here, and crowds flocked to "The Last King of Scotland" through the weekend; it sold more tickets than the latest James Bond movie did in December. (Only "The Passion of the Christ," pushed heavily by Kampala's many churches, did better.)
"The Last King of Scotland" was also generating steady business in the tin shacks that show pirated DVDs of films throughout Uganda, reports said.
Some Ugandans said they hope to eventually see African lives rendered more fully in mainstream cinema, perhaps with an occasional romantic comedy mixed in with the agonizing historical dramas. But for Ugandans too young to have clear memories of Amin's reign, "The Last King of Scotland" gave them a welcome dose of insight into their own national history.
"After seeing the movie," said Alice Mwesigwa, 32, "it was, 'Wow, this is real.' "