The following is a rambling research proposal of sorts.
In my paper, I’ll be examining the film “The Last King of Scotland.” The movie is about a 1970’s real Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin, whose life is exposed through his relationship with the main character, a fictional Scottish doctor, Nicholas Garrigan. Garrigan, although based on the collective real men in Amin’s council, varies in cultural origin and significantly influences several less-than-real events within the film. Through this main character, the film moves away from historical representation at the same time it attempts to provide access to it.?Reacting to the film’s powerful story, a Ugandan extra on location interviewed in the DVD special features says he is glad that Ugandan children can watch this film and finally learn about their national history. But is this history? What are the implications of historeographic metafiction in a culture beyond the borders of America, and what are its limitations? (Real thesis to come.)
To answer, I’d first like to brush Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism up against Ugandan reactions to the film’s release, examining the postmodern as a means of political and capitalist consumption of culture in Third World countries. When Hollywood, in the name of profit, represents “history” through a predominantly white, fictional lens, what are the implications? Are there limits to what historiographic metafiction can or should responsibly do? To pick out the problems within the actual production, it will be interesting to watch the movie twice more, once strictly for content and once with the director’s commentary switched on. More on this later…
The other side of the coin is Hutcheon’s point that history has always been representation, and true access to reality has only been an assumption. In this regard, historiographic metafiction has the ability to reveal more than the victor’s historical narrative. According to an interview with the film’s director, he suggests that the fictional Scottish Doctor allows a more personal window into dictator Idi Amin, a man who has traditionally been known more-so through mythical stories than fact all along. (I’ll have to watch again to get the exact quote.)
Amin is an interesting problem unto himself. It is known that, during the time of Amin’s rule, journalist access was limited to panel interviews with this man alone. His account was the sole authority of the state of his country. Witnesses to Amin’s slaughter within the country were unreachable and outsiders were unsure whether the mass killing was real. Amin also presented his own personal limitation, offering one side of himself to the press and exhibiting quite another behind closed doors. Fiction certainly provides more perspective into Amin as a character, but this not to be mistaken for reality.
Considering these varied ideas, has historiographic metafiction offered distorted interpretation or greater understanding? Preliminary research has already produced a quote pertinent to Jameson’s point. According to “In Uganda, ‘Last King of Scotland’ Generates Blend of Pride and Pain Crowds Flock to Oscar-Honored Film About Idi Amin” By Craig Timberg of the Washington Post:
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.’ “
More appropriately phrased, this movie is merely a believable representation of the real. Mwesigwa’s reaction is problematic in that the story is not “real.” According to Jameson, this form has foregone the signposts that had traditionally signaled fiction from reality.
According to “Absolute Power, A chameleonic Forest Whitaker dominates an awkward Idi Amin biopic” by Ella Taylor of the Village Voice:
The Last King of Scotland deals with real events filtered through Giles Foden’s 1998 novel, in which Garrigan serves as a composite of numerous white advisers with whom Amin surrounded himself, then mercilessly cut off when they no longer served his purposes.
To unpack this description is to reveal the multiple layers of removal from the real:
- Actual events as they happened
- Distillation of Amin’s advisors down to the fictional Dr. Garrigan
- Foden’s narrative process
- Conversion from novel to screen play
- Collective influence of director, producer and actors
- Further editing
- Viewer interpretation
Contamination of the real is inherent in any narrative, yet this particular process is influenced by a great many people who had never personally experienced Amin’s regime.
An interview in Boldtype “Giles Foden, The Last King of Scotland” reveals the tricky process of narration prior to the further imposition of film placed upon the real. Although the English author spent much time in Africa as a child, witnessing bodies in the rivers and other horrific sights, he had no personal access to Amin.
BT: Is your portrait of Amin based on research, memory, imagination, or a combination of all three?
GF: All three, but trying to keep the research at bay was a problem. I kept discovering these amazing things about Amin which I wanted to put in the book. This was disturbing, as I felt like I was being “dictated” to, or suffering the kind of demonic possession that Amin believed existed. Still, I guess I must have pulled through: mainly I tried to hang onto to the idea that this was a story. I wanted to make people turn the page.
While Foden’s research lends authenticity to the narrative, his selection of facts shapes what is told and, in the end, he reminds us that this is ultimately a story designed to sell and entertain.
At the end of “The Last King of Scotland” there is a scene where the fictional Dr. Garrigan, viewed as a traitor, is being tortured by Amin. He gets hung on what look like meat hooks through the chest and, as he hangs, the imagery is similar to Christ hanging on the cross. In fact, he refuses to scream – as if he is taking on the sorrow of the thousands Amin had slaughtered and refusing to give Amin the satisfaction of watching him suffer. Garrigan is eventually rescued as Amin’s attention is distracted and when he asks the man who takes him down why he did it, the Ugandan says that if Garrigan escapes, perhaps the story of the Ugandan people with finally be heard, particularly because Garrigan is white and has the power to draw the attention of nations who can help. In the end, the implication is that Uganda is rescued by the white savior.
Is this a tool used to sell the film to American audiences or is it a commentary on how the world refuses to recognize the plight of Africans unless told by whites? I can see how both are plausible. Perhaps this is where the power of historeographic metafiction offers a view into the untold and unheard story of those people slaughtered. At the same time, it reinforces the power of the dominant culture.
According to the New York Times: World Africa video, “The Last King of Scotland Opens in Uganda” by Jeffrey Gettleman, much care has been taken by the film crew to portray events as authentically as possible. Filming within the country and using Ugandan extras allowed Forrest Whitaker to speak with the people about their memories. In his portrayal of Idi Amin, Whitaker’s accent and actions also provide a certain amount of authenticity, according to Jingo, a native actor and American movie translator in Uganda. Many have remarked that Whitaker had become Amin. (Quotes to follow.)
Gettleman’s article, “A Film Star in Kampala, Conjuring Amin’s Ghost,” also reveals that the representation may not be far off the mark:
“This is not a bad attempt at history,” said Henry Kyemba, the author of “A State of Blood,” a book he published in exile in 1977 about his years as a minister in Amin’s government.
Kyemba, having been a minister to Amin, is probably the best barometer of the films success in capturing any similarity to the real. His experience lends an authority that most viewers can only imagine. Still, he is but one man with one perspective in an organization of many who had a deadly impact upon an entire nation.
The film’s significant social impact is obvious as Gettleman’s video references the prevalence and popularity of the illegal pre-release thanks to the DVD underground. Nationwide accessibility is available for 20 cents as opposed to the inaccessible $5 admission to Uganda’s only theater. Although it is difficult to gauge the widespread social impact, the only thing known for sure is that postmodern globalization is merging cultures and overwriting that which it erases. Perhaps, while this is inevitable, it can be handled respectfully and responsibly as “The Last King of Scotland” attempts to do.
While the above reports put a positive spin on the film’s reception and acceptance in Uganda, it will be interesting to see whether I can find a different angle or if I’ll be forced to read between the capitalist glorification of American publications.
So much for the seedling? as I wrote, the darn thing continued to grow. I can picture Dr. Middleton rubbing her hands together with a satisfied and somewhat sinister smile saying, “This was my plan all along.”