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In an incredible twist of fate, Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) becomes irreversibly entangled with one of the world's most barbaric figures: self-appointed Ugandan President Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker). Impressed by Dr. Garrigan, Amin picks him as his personal physician and confidant. Though Garrigan is fascinated by his new position, he soon awakens to Amin's savagery—and his own complicity in it. Horror and betrayal ensue as he tries to right his wrongs and escape Uganda alive. Co-starring Gillian Anderson and Kerry Washington. Directed by Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void) and based on the novel by Giles Foden.
 

 Idi

I dreamed that Idi Amin was sitting at the end of my bed. It was the night before we started shooting and there he was like some enormous, shiny black python—placid but full of threat. Eyes flicking about, just breathing—but breathing in the slightly animal, gutteral way which I had been told always presaged his most violent outbursts.

I never sleep well the night before shooting begins. But this gave me the chills.

The Last King of Scotland is not a bio-pic of Amin—it’s a largely fictional story in which he appears—but his presence has always loomed large over it, much as his image—the very picture of the savage, capricious, cannibalistic dictator seemed to fulfil some kind of mythic requirement for the Western press in the 1970s. He was the playground boogeyman to school children of my age and songs (at least one of them comic), books and articles flooded out about him and his horrific regime.

The first time we went to Uganda, on a research trip, I was nervous about what the Ugandans would say about our portrayal of their most famous leader (and until Nelson Mandela, the most widely known African in the world, I suspect). What I found was that to them he is a semimythical figure. Nobody seems to really know the truth about him. Even simple facts—where he was born, what his father did—are up for grabs with various versions circulating. Everything about him is accreted with myth and gossip.

So the idea that we wanted to use Amin and various events from his life in our fictional film didn’t faze the Ugandans. They already see him as a semi-fictional character.

The other thing that struck me was how ambivalent the Ugandan relationship with Amin is. They can hold the two extremes of his character in their minds at once. They can laugh at him (and with him) telling you hilarious stories about his antics and the way he humiliated the English (a favourite topic), then pause for a moment and inform you that Amin was responsible for the death of a father, a brother, a cousin…. Even his detractors often have a degree of pride in him: he stood up to the British, he made us feel proud to be African, he understood us. Harder to comprehend are the numerous, often educated, sensitive people who think that despite the massacres and indiscriminate brutalities, he was the best leader Uganda ever had. One quickly realises that one’s “Western” perspective is inadequate to understand the relationship Amin had with his people.

I’ll never forget the occasion when I asked my Ugandan adviser—a brilliant playwright called Charles Malekwa—whether he believed all the stories about Amin’s obsession with witchcraft. “Of course,” said Charles (who when he was a boy had once danced for Amin himself—and been handed a great wage of Ugandan shillings by the man himself for his trouble). “But,” I enquired, “what does a witchdoctor do? What kind of influence did he have over Amin?” Charles paused, as though he was weighing up whether to tell me something or not. “Well,” he said slowly and seriously, “there was a story which everyone at that time knew. Amin asked his witchdoctor what he should do if he wanted to be president for life and the witchdoctor said to him: ‘You must eat the heart of the one you love the most.’” Charles paused. “ So Amin killed his favourite son and ate his heart.” I still remember my sense of shock when he said this. I could literally not imagine anything more depraved, more awful.

Incredulous, I asked Charles if he believed this had really happened. Charles just shrugged again, “It’s not really important whether it happened or not. The main thing is that at that time everyone in the country believed it was true—that he was capable of this kind of thing.”

Some Ugandans even seemed to think that Amin was still alive. When we filmed Amin’s opening scene—giving a speech at a huge political rally in the country—we gathered together about 3,000 extras from the local villages. After a few hours of shooting, I noticed one of the assistant directors having a heated discussion with a local man. Apparently the man—along with many of his fellow villagers—thought that the real Amin had come to the village on a political tour—and he wanted to know why he kept repeating his speech over and over again. It was a testament to Forest Whitaker’s performance—but also, I think, to the mythic power of Amin.