Thursday, March 01, 2007

Fear And Loathing in Kampala

I bought my brother Giles Foden's novel The Last King of Scotland for Christmas a good few years back and I resolved to read it almost as soon as he had unwrapped it; I never did, though I did find it lying around the house back home this Christmas but forgot to bring it back to Paris with me. But anyway the film is here now, so, like there's no need to bother reading the buke, is there? I have since read a lot of Foden's print journalism (and he has a brief cameo as a British hack needling Idi Amin in a press conference) in The Guardian; after 9/11 he was regularly solicited to write about Islamic fundamentalism, as his third novel Zanzibar deals with the Dar-es-Salaam and Nairobi bombings of 1998.

I feared for the film, expecting it to be yet another Western film with a mission to present its troubled conscience to the world. Africa has featured in Western/Hollywood cinema a lot of late (and, let's be honest, The Last King of Scotland belongs to the Hollywood system every bit as much as Lord of War or Blood Diamond do) and the result is not always terribly satisfactory to my mind. While the wars and genocides of the continent should get as much exposure as possible in the developed world (whose audiences, are sadly unlikely to prove to be any more willing to do anything about them, once they have exited the other side of the cathartic experience that films such as these offer) they do also reinforce images of African society as one big cesspool of murder, poverty and disease. True, these images do not come from nowhere but neither do they tell the whole picture, where Europeans (I won't even mention Americans) are only too willing to lump Senegal in with Sierra Leone, Cameroon in with Somalia, Botswana in with Rwanda and so on. And then there are those apartheid nostalgists, such as the many that swamped this comment forum in yesterday's Guardian, who are convinced that the entire continent is riven by tribal hatred that necessitated the stamp of European authority to impose some order on the wogs in the first place.

The fact that Foden's novel, and Kevin MacDonald's adaptation of it, is narrated through a young Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan, makes it all the more suspect, even if a Western-made film about Africa is going to find it difficult to avoid using a white face as an anchor. Garrigan is also a fictional character though Foden based him on the ex-British soldier, Bob Astles, who was widely perceived to be Amin's closest advisors. Garrigan escapes his dull Scottish life as a medical graduate to volunteer in Uganda, a country he chooses by chance. After a chance meeting with the recently installed General Amin, he becomes the new president's personal physician. There is a long tradition of physicians of powerful leaders and tyrants being ambivalent figures, from Alexander the Great to Enver Hoxha, whose former doctor Sali Berisha lead the pro-democracy campaign in Albania after his death and who is today serving his second term as Prime Minister. But young Garrigan is clearly in over his head and after some foolish gossipping to Amin causes the disappearance of the Minister for Health he wakes up to the reality of the regime. None of this is terribly convincing, particularly the scene where Garrigan flippantly expresses his 'concerns' to the leader, and one is reminded of Ken Loach's Carla's Song where Robert Caryle's Glasgow bus driver is planted by the director into the midst of the Contra terror in Nicaragua, only to demonstrate how little he knows about it all.

But what is lost in dramatic virisimilitude (and there's a good bit more lost, which I won't divulge, as it will give a lot away) is made up for in the commitment to presenting the era and Ugandan society without the usual clichés and prejudices. There is a bit of an over-emphasis on the Afro-Beat glamour of Amin's boozy parties, but, by most accounts, it was actually like that before the slaughter began. MacDonald, like Foden has a sympathy for those around Amin, and perhaps even a perverse regard for the monster himself, who, in Forest Whittaker's barnstorming performance, is part-avuncular bumbler, part-charming sadist. There is little psychological insight into what turned him into such a paranoid ball of terror but that is probably beyond the scope of most fiction involving public figures. What is most impressive and frightening is the sense of menace that pervades the film, which reminds one of Alan Bullock's answer to a question about the two tyrants he portrayed in Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives; when asked which of them he would have preferred to spend the weekend with he said "Hitler, because at least with him you might be sure that you would come back on Sunday night".

A consequent flaw is that the film lacks political background, though the complicity of the British in the coup that brought Amin to power is acknowledged. There will still be many that leave the film with their view of Africans-as-victims reinforced, despite the best efforts of MacDonald. And it is unfortunate that the closing title that mentions Amin's fall from power in 1979 fails to add that it was neighbouring Tanzania that overthrew him, a rare instance of a war in Africa having been fought to honourable ends. The film looks great with the bleached grain of the visual texture rendered brilliantly by Dogme technician Anthony Dod Mantle, giving it an eerily period air, and for all the horror on show, is gripping throughout. A film about a man who slaughtered 300,000 people makes for dubious entertainment but The Last King of Scotland still compares well with most other films made about Africa by non-Africans. It would be great if the interest that these films have fostered in the continent would in turn result in a rise in interest in indigenous African cinema, which often shows a side other than famine, war and disease. But, somehow I doubt it.