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Kevin Macdonald takes us inside Uganda of the 70s while Forest Whitaker channels Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, which combines historical adventure with human insight.

The first wholly dramatic film from Oscar-winning documentarian Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September, Touching the Void) is a unique insight into Uganda during the time of notorious Idi Amin. Giles Foden’s 1998 multi award winning novel, The Last King of Scotland, creates a fictional young doctor who becomes Amin’s trusted friend and confidante, only to discover he is trapped in a realm that grows more violent and out of control every day.

Meshing Dr. Nicholas Garrigan’s fictional moral dilemmas with shocking real stories from Amin’s rule, Foden forged an exciting window not only into Uganda’s past but into the very question of how ordinary people react when faced with the worst acts of humanity. He titled the novel The Last King of Scotland after one of Amin’s grandiose names for himself. (Amin’s other extravagant titles for himself included Conqueror of the British Empire and Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea.)

"I’ve always been drawn to projects that take audiences to new places"

“I saw it as a kind of classic story about a young man who sets out looking for adventure, gets far more adventure than he bargained for and, in the process, finds out who he really is,” Macdonald explains. “In some ways it could be a story about any tyrannical leader anywhere in the world, but I also found it compelling because no one has ever really a done a film like this about Africa.”

Macdonald says “I’ve always been drawn to projects that take audiences to new places, that expose them to worlds they’re unfamiliar with and the hope is that even if you’ve never heard of Idi Amin, you’ll leave The Last King Of Scotland thinking ‘wow, now that’s opened my eyes to something.’”

Macdonald and the film’s producers all agreed it was essential to shoot the film in Uganda. But until recently, the country was largely off-limits to all but the boldest of Westerners and Idi Amin remains a controversial figure who can stir up dangerous emotions there. Furthermore, the country has no infrastructure for filmmaking and the project would require cooperation at the highest governmental levels. Would it even be possible? With trepidation, the filmmakers wrangled a meeting with the ruling President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, hoping for his approval.

“Everything hung on the meeting with President Museveni,” recalls producer Lisa Bryer of Cowboy Films. ‘We needed his full support both creatively and financially. After many weeks of negotiating with his office we managed to secure an audience. When the day came, John Nagenda, the President's Special Media Advisor, made sure we were all in our best dress and on our best behaviour, then ushered us into a huge room with Ugandan flags flying. Kevin, the three producers, line producer Andrew Wood and Ugandan location manager Emily Mabonga were all lined up opposite eight ministers and officials and a beaming president, with TV cameras and press photographers covering the whole thing.”

Bryer continues: “Halfway through the meeting President Museveni asked me where my tribe came from. ‘Israel and South Africa Mr. President,’ I answered, hoping not to have blown the meeting. Two hours later we were all ushered out and told by his ministers that the President was not only incredibly happy to have us film in his country, but that he would give us the full use of his army, his parliament and his ministers!”

"Being where it all happened made a massive difference"

Macdonald was thrilled. “Everyone thought we were a bit crazy going to Uganda to film, but I felt very strongly it was the only way to make this film. Uganda has a unique feel to it, with its great modernist architecture from the 50s and the 60s, which you see in the Parliament building and the Mulago Hospital. I wanted to capture that different, more realistic image of Africa, which I think will surprise people. And once we arrived in Uganda, we were surrounded by history. Almost everyone we met had been deeply affected by the time of Idi Amin in some way. Being where it all happened made a massive difference.”

One of the amazing things Macdonald discovered in Uganda was that there are lot of people who still have a great deal of respect for Amin. “People in the West don’t understand that he was seen as a pretty incredible person as well as using violence indiscriminately,” says the director. “What was perhaps simultaneously most attractive and dangerous about Idi was how mercurial he could be. He was somebody who started with great intentions, but was brought down by his own character flaws. People originally thought he was warm and funny. They thought this man could never hurt a fly. I think all those contradictions are fascinating.”

To portray that complex character, Macdonald cast Forest Whitaker as Amin, and as several nominations and awards suggest, it turns out to Whitaker’s most spectacular performance.

Whitaker came to the project with the standard impression of Amin as a buffoon and killer, but soon found his view deepening far beyond that. “At first, I had only very dark images of this man,” he admits. “I saw him as a big, angry maniac. But as I read the novel and did more research, I began to have a different understanding. When you look at old footage you can see that Idi was also an extremely charming man. The challenge for me as an actor was to play a really complete character, not just a stereotyped image.”

While researching Amin’s history, Whitaker came to the conclusion that he was a man who wanted to be a visionary but who fell victim to his own delusions. Observes the actor: “He was someone who rose not just from poor but from dirt poor all the way to the top. He was often said to be unintelligent and yet he spoke ten different languages. And I think he did want to build more schools and create hospitals and fix roads – but he didn’t find the best ways to do these things. Then, as he started to fear that he was going to lose power, he became extremely paranoid and developed into a much darker figure.”

The darkness of Idi Amin led eventually to rampant rumors of cannibalism and blood rituals – although these were never conclusively proven. Modern historians have even wondered if Amin may have been suffering from physical or psychological disorders that led to his inhumane behavior. But without succumbing to too much speculation, Whitaker carefully developed his approach to Amin by focusing on the more human qualities of his thwarted dreams and out-of-control fears. Rather than turn Amin once again into a stereotype, Whitaker attempted to make the role his own.

"grabbing a certain essence of the man"

“I did not want to do a direct impersonation,” Whitaker explains, “but I did study tapes of Amin to help me understand him better as a man. I worked out the way he talked, and studied Swahili because that was his first language. I was most concerned with grabbing a certain essence of the man – to give the sense that whatever else he was, he was a real person.”

Published February 1, 2007

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The Last King of Scotland – Australian release, February 1, 2007


Naïve young Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McEvoy) turns up in Uganda of the 70s at the time of the latest coup, with romantic notions of being able to help the less fortunate. Through a series of circumstances, he gets to meet the newly installed, post-coup President, General Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker), who takes a liking to him and makes him the President’s personal physician. Garrigan is at first oblivious to the ghastly reality of Idi Amin’s destructive leadership and brutal oppression of opponents, and when his eyes are opened, he is horrified. But not before he has a deadly affair with one of Amin’s wives, Kay (Kerry Washington), and not before he has caused more trauma rather than helped.

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