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The Nutty Dictator: Idi Amin, The King of TIFF

His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Alhaji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Conqueror of the British Empire was a big bag of crazy. The man who ruled Uganda with an iron fist from 1971 to 1979 and is likely responsible for the murder and torture of a half million of his own people makes for one of the most interesting psychological studies in the entire pantheon of 20th-century dictators.

The best portrait of Amin I’ve ever read was Giles Foden’s 1998 Whitbread prize-winning novel The Last King of Scotland. The novel tells the story of a Scottish doctor named James Garrigan who finds himself serving as Amin’s personal physician just as the dictator’s grip on both his country and his sanity begin to slip away. The name, of course, springs from the fact that Amin called himself the “King of Scotland,” in solidarity with the Scottish anti-colonial struggle. Garrigan and Amin’s intimate (yet horrifying) discussions concerning the Queen, the trappings of colonialism and Scottish culture make up some of the novel’s best passages. Now Foden’s fantastic novel is coming to the screen, with Forrest Whitaker playing Amin.

Yesterday, TIFF announced that The Last King of Scotland, directed by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Kevin MacDonald (Touching the Void, One Day in September) will receive a Special Presentation at this year’s festival, as part of its celebration of “the finest in African and African Diaspora cinema.”

For a taste of MacDonald’s source material, read an excerpt of Foden’s book. If the film is even a shade of the book, it will be a must see. Though this is his first fictional feature, MacDonald’s track record suggests the work is in capable hands.

Going down the list, the other projects TIFF has included as “the finest in African and African diaspora cinema” seems to have more than a few white directors behind their cameras (MacDonald being one). The films sound kind of exciting (at least more exciting than the line up of should-be stinkers they announced last Thursday. (I am not speaking of the Christopher Guest Gala announcement, for which I’m eternally grateful).

The other Special Presentation announced yesterday was Australian director Philp Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence, Patriot Games)’s Catch a Fire. It tells the story of Patrick Chamusso (Antwone Fisher’s Derek Luke), a normal, apolitical South African man who, after being wrongfully imprisoned and tortured by South Africa’s apartheid government, volunteers to blow up the Secunda Oil Refinery where he’d once worked.

The interesting angle here is that one of the film’s producers, Robyn Slovo, and screenwriter Shawn Slovo are the daughters of Joe Slovo and Ruth First, pioneer white activists who stood up against apartheid and joined the ANC while in exile. As the former Chief of Staff of the military wing of the ANC, Joe Slovo was actually the brain behind Chamusso’s attack on the refinery. In 1982, Ruth was assassinated in Mozambique by the South African Special Branch.

A similarly interesting story surrounds white Jamaican director Perry Henzell’s No Place Like Home. After Henzell finished his iconic The Harder They Come (which helped bring reggae music and culture to North America), he set out to make the second film of what was meant to be a trilogy. That was just under three decades ago. Hampered by financial problems and a ridiculously long list of too-strange occurrences, No Place like Home just couldn’t seem to get itself finished. At one point, Henzell gave up in frustration, quitting the film business entirely and getting into novel writing (penning the story that will now become the final movie in the trilogy). No Place Like Home looks like The Harder They Come turned backwards. Instead of the Life and Hard Times of Ivanhoe Martin, a rural Jamaican kid with an eye for the city, No Place Like Home gives us an outsider’s view of rural Jamaica as a New York City film producer finds herself a wandering Dorothy in its beautiful but strange Oz.

Also announced yesterday was Spike Lee’s new HBO-produced documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. The right has been waiting to jump all over this ever since Lee went on CNN last October and slammed the government for failing the black residents of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. When asked whether the largely black Ninth Ward of the Big Easy had been deliberately flooded by authorities, Lee responded that he “[didn] put anything past the United States government. I don’t find it too far-fetched that they tried to displace all the black people out of New Orleans.”

When the Levees Broke explores the heartbreaking struggles of ordinary residents in New Oreleans. It’s also a harsh Kanye-style indictment of the Bush government’s racism. Lee has responded to accusations that the doc is one-sided and polemic by saying that invitations to speak on-camera he sent to the Rices and Chertoffs of the world were all turned down. Just how unbalanced this piece really is remains to be seen.

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly of all, TIFF has announced the North American premiere of Rachid Bouchareb’s Indigenes. A huge sensation at Cannes, where the male ensemble cast won the Best Actor award, Indigenes tells the story of Algerian recruits who, despite never having set foot on French soil, join the French army to defend the “motherland” from the Nazis. Obviously this story has far more meaning to French audiences, as the country struggles with increasing ethnic conflict and the nasty residue of centuries of endemic racism. That said, its story of heroes who history forgot promises to be evocative and thought-provoking.

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