The Blog

Iraq's Crazy Uncle

Joel Soler's documentary looks at Saddam Hussein's foibles.

11:00 PM, Nov 18, 2002 • By RUFUS JONES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

FOR AS LONG as there has been a Saddam Hussein, Saddam scholars have been confronted by a question with no easy answer: just what kind of crazy is he? He reigns by terror at home, while preying on anti-American sentiment among the conflict-averse abroad. So is Saddam calculated-crazy, crazy like the cross-dressing, discharge-seeking Klinger character in "M*A*S*H," crazy like a fox?

Or is he certifiable, driving-with-one's-lights-on-dim, two-pence-short-of-a-bob crazy? Some say he evidences that special brand of tin-pot dictator crazy--the kind of crazy that caused the syphilitic Idi Amin to eat his victims' organs and store their heads in the fridge. While others (mostly axe-grinding Iraqi dissidents) have suggested it may go beyond that, that Saddam might be suffering from the most advanced, most debilitating, most incurable brand of barminess--that he just might be Angelina Jolie-crazy.

It's hard to say for sure. But recent evidence suggests that Saddam fits comfortably into that last category. Just this year alone, ABC News interviewed his mistress of 30 years, who reported that Saddam was a Viagra-popping, gazelle-eating hypochondriac who boasted of trying to kill his own son (his son, Uday, pronounced "you-die" is himself so crazy, that Maxim magazine reported he cut his crazy-teeth as a young boy, watching torture videos made by the Iraqi police as if they were cartoons). Likewise, The Atlantic's Mark Bowden filled in the crazy picture, reporting that Saddam has three meals a day prepared for him at each of his twenty-plus palaces, that the security-conscious germophobe requires visitors to have their clothing laundered, sterilized and x-rayed, and that in one of his palaces, he likes to retire to the library, which is stocked with nothing but books on Joseph Stalin.

But there is perhaps no portrait of Saddam Hussein that has more effectively explored the non compos mentis angle than "Uncle Saddam," a documentary by French filmmaker Joel Soler, which Cinemax will air on November 26 at 7:00 p.m. Soler ingratiated himself to Saddam's inner circle (including his personal filmmaker, his architect, and his interior decorator) by convincing them he intended to document the country's suffering under U.N. sanctions. The anti-American pose served as a credible cover since Soler is, after all, French.

But unlike many of his sophisticated countrymen, Soler, a former television producer, is prone to moral outrage, and has displayed an admirable streak of ballsy-ness. Hot on the bin Laden trail during another project, Soler was beaten by bin Laden bodyguards after refusing to relinquish his camera. On September 11, he had been working on a project on Adolf Hitler, and found himself watching the Twin Towers collapse in Leni Riefenstahl's living room (she watched alongside him--in her bathrobe).

But what has ended up bringing Soler much well-deserved attention is his short film, which has been kicking around the festival circuit for two years, and which he risked his life to smuggle out of Iraq. Narrated by Scott Thompson, formerly of the critically-acclaimed comedy troupe "Kids in the Hall" (and who, at one point, lived with Soler), "Uncle Saddam" is a black-comic litany of cruel absurdities that could only be found amusing if you're a citizen of some place other than Iraq.

For those of us watching review copies of "Uncle Saddam," some of Hussein's dialogue is lost because someone at HBO/Cinemax decided to post their licensing/transmittal restrictions right over the subtitles. This is unfortunate, since Saddam doesn't speak English, and most of us don't speak lunatic. Still plenty of gems shine through.

The film opens with a running list of Saddam fun facts that appear like hit song titles scrolling by in a K-tel commercial. His favorite uncle, the narrative tells us, taught him that there are three things that shouldn't exist: "Jews, Persians, and flies." One of Saddam's minions informs us that the one thing Saddam is religious about is having a cup of coffee every morning. Whether you're off to meet your carpool, or off to gas the Kurds, there, as here apparently, the best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup.