/ 11 May 2007

The writer and his dictator

Though early morning when I touched down in Entebbe it was pitch-black equatorial night outside. As I looked through the oval of the window, the sky about Lake Victoria lit up with sheet lightning, followed by a whump of thunder. I tried to resist the melodramatic feelings that rose inside me; then gave in. From where I sat, it did feel like a show.

I’d not been back to Uganda since 2000, when I covered the Kanungu cult murders. But I was used to the highway from the airport to Kampala, the capital, unshaken by what might have been eerie in another place — soldiers leaning out of the dark, the flash of headlights on wet banana leaves, most of all the piles of coffins at a roadside carpenters.

Those coffins — or rather, their successors — had been there since I began coming to Uganda eight years ago. They were a comfort not a fright to me.

Light grew. The time by now must have been about 7am. We came slowly through the Kampala rush hour — rustbuckets and four-by-fours bumper to bumper under the mud-stained clocktower that had somehow survived Idi Amin’s time and all the civil wars that followed. It was only with the accession to power of the current president Yoweri Museveni in 1985 that things began to improve.

People often assume I lived through Amin’s regime. Some even believe I am the son of the doctor who is the protagonist in my first novel, The Last King of Scotland. In fact, from 1971 to 1993 my family lived in a number of African countries, including Uganda. The Last King of Scotland, though firmly set in Uganda at a particular historical period (1971 to 1979) is nonetheless a distillation of that general experience.

The novel tells the story of a young Scottish medic, Nicholas Garrigan, who becomes personal physician to Amin. Through a combination of lust for adventure and moral disengagement he becomes complicit with Amin’s atrocities. I wanted to look at the passivity characteristic of some types of expatriate life; and also to analyse the magnetism of a powerful person, ideally through the prism of a close observer. Originally my doctor was a valet, loosely based on Sganarelle in Moliere’s Dom Juan. Then I realised a doctor would be more interesting. What happens when illness strikes the leader? What if Garrigan were asked to kill Amin?

It was all a far cry from my family’s life in Uganda. My father was an agricultural economist. In 1989 he was posted to Mbarara, a small town on the Uganda-Rwanda border. It was there, having won a creative writing fellowship at Cambridge, that I began the novel. At first it wasn’t set in Uganda at all. It took place in an invented African country under the rule of a man called Dipsenza. He wasn’t a very good character — not very good in a literary sense or a moral one. Garrigan was not much better. He was called Laing. Or was it Lockheart? I can’t remember.

The story eluded me. It was like trying to net a slippery leviathan. Sitting on the veranda of my parents’ house, I struggled with that book for months.

Eventually I realised that the kind of dictator I wanted, a figure out of quasi-primeval myth refettled for modern fiction, was a dream. Instead, I should tackle the real thing: Amin himself.

Everything flowed from that moment. As it came, I remember looking up over the flame trees of our garden into the Bacwezi Valley beyond. I saw the red laterite road stretching up through green bush into soon-to-be genocidal Rwanda and thought, ‘This is what I must write about, these habitations of cruelty where he flourished — and sometimes seems to do so still.”

Very soon afterward, I grasped that the book would stand or fall on information about the relative positions of observer and observed. What, I wondered, were the moral implications of watching a man become monstrous? Where does the complicity stop?

Tales about the former dictator began to populate my imagination, feeding into the writing of the book. One that attracted me most was his attachment to Scotland, forged on account of his having been trained by Scottish officers and later developing an antagonism towards the English. He made some of his own soldiers don kilts and march to the skirl of pipes. I put all this in the novel, which was eventually finished in 1996. It was published two years later.

Idi Amin Dada was a man who attracted stories like a street lamp attracts termite flies. Yet I never envisaged it, back then, as a story on screen. I’m still rather surprised it has happened at all. As I write, Kevin Macdonald’s film of the book has been out in the United States for several months. One US review has described Forest Whitaker (who plays Amin) as ‘toggling between media-savvy jester and stone-cold killer”. Just so.

Long before Whitaker walked on set and inhabited the role so skilfully, Amin was an actor and ‘media commodity”. He had a part in a film called Zenga, playing the role of a bloodthirsty mercenary: it now seems to have been lost, sadly. He liked to play his accordion to an audience and play the joker in press conferences.

But the real acting took place on the world stage, with those posturing telegrams to the Queen and Richard Nixon — both figures whom the eventual Last King scriptwriter Peter Morgan has tackled in other films.

Like them, as well as being a genuine historical individual, Amin was a signifier, a persona. He came to represent ‘essence of dictator”. He was a bloodthirsty comic nightmare, but in his head another kind of dream was playing: that of the good but strong African leader. The problem, as ever, is how to tell the person from the persona, and to understand what both might mean.

My agent sent out the novel. There were few takers. In the end, it was a company called Cowboy Films that optioned the rights, in 1998. Soon after, I was told FilmFour was willing to put some development money behind a script. I didn’t hear anything from the filmmakers for a while after that.

The next I heard, Joe Penhall was writing the script. He had written a couple of plays by then, and seemed to have a good grasp of the story. He delivered a first draft. It began with Amin in a boxing ring in the Ugandan night, surrounded by brutish British soldiers (they used to hit him on the head with a hammer to urge him on).

Not long after Amin’s death, I read the new script, which introduced two major changes to the plot. I won’t go into them now, as they would spoil watching the film. I wish I had thought of them. Morgan also solved the ‘problem” of Garrigan’s passivity by turning him from a self-absorbed son of the manse into a kind of African Bay City Roller, up for kicks in the bundu. Priapism replaced passivity. It was a role that James McAvoy was born to play. He lives in the next road to me in London, but we didn’t meet properly until August 2005, when I found myself winding through Kampala in the middle of that rainstorm.

I checked in at the Kabira Country Club, where the crew was staying.

They were obviously enjoying themselves. But it hadn’t all been fun, as I learned from Kevin Macdonald later that morning by the pool. One of the cameramen had experienced a manic episode as a consequence of his malaria drug, an ambulance they needed for filming had run out of petrol and the army constantly wanted bribes, even though Museveni had given his permission for their facilities and equipment to be used.

You could sense the tension at dinner that night. Two people with, it was clear, immense psychic presence in the production were absent. Naturally, their performances dominated the conversation: Simon McBurney, who plays a periphrastic but menacing British diplomat, and Whitaker.

One got the feeling everyone was a bit frightened of McBurney: there is certainly something mesmerising about him. Whitaker, I soon realised, did not fraternise with the rest of the cast and crew. It was not arrogance or standoffishness, but simply the need for rest, line-learning and following ‘the method”. He had gone completely into character: learning some Swahili, sitting under a mango tree chatting with Amin’s brother, eating Ugandan food with his fingers. He even apparently spoke to his mum using his Amin voice on the phone. As Kerry Washington (who plays Amin’s wife) said, ‘It’s scary because he’s Idi all the time.”

Mentioning Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King in interviews, he exploits Amin’s status as a black power icon and someone with whom Ugandans have an ambiguous relationship. They in their turn sometimes took him at face value. During a scene at Mulago hospital, people started chanting Dada in approbation when he appeared — and then one woman began to curse him loudly. At another point, after successive takes, a passer-by asked why Amin was giving the same speech so many times.

I would see how effective all this was the next morning, when I attended the filming of a scene in which Whitaker/Amin gave a press conference. It was decided that I, being a journalist, should be an extra during this scene. The filming took place at the Nile Conference Centre. In Amin’s time, the Nile had been a hotel, scene of notorious orgies and a place where bodies were dumped. During some recent redevelopment, builders had unearthed three skulls. Now it played host to a vast array of tents and parasols, under which cast, crew and 30 or 40 Ugandan extras lounged waiting to be called for their scenes.

All that was needed to realise the scene was a dictator in a navy-blue Ugandan Air Force uniform, resplendent with medals, a pistol at his belt.

The next day’s filming was on the shores of Lake Victoria. The location produced some of the best images of the shoot. One involves Amin, mounted on a white horse, lassoing his air force commander.

In a deeply symbolic moment, he pulls him towards him. This occurs during an amazing party sequence, the biggest in the film, depicting, to slack-jawed prog-rock, a moral sink of Hogarthian proportions. Amin plays his squeezebox, a sex scene is inserted, everyone cavorts.

I will never forget it. Smoke from the barbecue for the party — crucified hunks of beef and goat — drifted across as people milled about, guests and functionaries.

It was a sight to enjoy in itself, tempered by the knowledge that Michael Wawuyo, who acted in the role of the lassoed air force commander, was playing the part of a man who, in life, had killed Michael’s own father . Knowing this also made it a hard scene to watch, with too painful an overlap between life and art. It reminded me that what underwrote the bacchanal was murder.

About one in the morning, the topless dancers started swaying their stuff. I left them to it, taking a matatu back to the city along with a white extra. He was young, he could have been Garrigan, full of bravado as he rolled a joint. I reflected that at some point during the process of watching art, just like that of watching poverty, accountability shifts to the observers. Yeats’s dictum, ‘In dreams begin responsibility,” does not apply to authors alone. The cab filled with a heady scent of marijuana. I wondered what would happen when people saw the lassoing on screen, when the rope of complicity snaked out across the auditorium. —