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.
But from here, things take a bizarre turn. Saddam is a fanatic about cleanliness, which he regards as no laughing matter, even if we do, since, we are told, "Saddam likes to be greeted with a kiss near the armpit"(indeed, we see footage of a steady stream of black-bereted minions with copycat mustaches puckering up to plant one between Saddam's armpit and areola). The Butcher of Baghdad, it turns out, has all sorts of ideas about personal hygiene. Sitting behind a desk in a wide-brimmed hat and flashy suit that make him look like a Newark pimp, he holds forth: "It's not appropriate for someone to attend a gathering or to be with his children with his body odor trailing behind emitting a sweet or stinky smell mixed with perspiration. It's preferable to bathe twice a day, but at least once a day. And when the male bathes once a day, the female should bathe twice a day, [the] female is more delicate, and the smell of a woman is more noticeable than the male."
Having established that females are pungent, Saddam adds that "If a woman can't afford to brush her teeth with toothpaste and a toothbrush, she should use her finger." With such statements, it's hard to decide which is more galling--the fact that Iraq's leader, or, as he prefers to be called "His Excellency, President Saddam Hussein, Servant of God, Believer, Leader of All Muslims," is giving brushing tips, or the fact that enough Iraqis can't afford toothbrushes that he would feel compelled to dispense such advice.
Saddam, it turns out, is a gold-plated weirdo of the Howard Hughesian stripe. His former trade minister tells us that he is scared to be contaminated by people (though he's shown no compunction about spreading his own germs--just ask the Kurds). His smallest cuts are dealt with immediately, and every week, doctors must determine the perfect temperature for Saddam's office. "There are several rules issued by doctors," says the minister. "When you meet with him, they tell you how to shake his hand, how many centimeters must be between you and him."
Besides decontamination, Saddam does have other hobbies: he enjoys joshing with his doubles, firing weapons into the air at mandatory-attendance rallies, dancing to traditional Arab music, smoking Cubans (cigars, not people), and going fishing with grenades. Risking life and limb, Soler periodically escaped his state-appointed minders (who he generously mentions in the documentary's credits: "Attempted to be directed by Abou Noor"), to film some of Saddam's palaces.
It begins to feel like an episode of MTV's "Cribs," except instead of the tacky "Scarface" posters typically favored by our nation's leading gangster rappers, Saddam's cribs come with all sorts of extra amenities: private casinos, gold-leaf thrones, escape bunkers, even underground runways. While Saddam does tend toward the ostentatious (after asking his people to donate their gold for the war effort against Iran, he later showed up in a solid-gold carriage), he's not above sharing his wealth. In 1998, we are informed, "When American planes began to bomb some of Saddam's palaces, Saddam invited the Iraqi people to sleep inside."
For someone so universally despised, even by members of his own extended family (many of whom he has either placed under house arrest or executed), Saddam seems to have healthy self-esteem. When he began putting on pounds, a liposuction machine showed up on an Iraqi acquisition form. But he doesn't appear terribly weight conscious. For a while, he did diet, but, he said, "I found Iraqis worried about my weight reduction, so I increased it for their sake."
It doesn't really matter if say, a single mural on the Ministry of Agriculture building makes him look fat. He can always have it re-done, or execute the artist, or both. Besides, it's not like Iraqis don't know what he looks like. His likeness is everywhere. Every day, informs the narrator, Iraq's biggest newspaper "features a photo of his excellency in a dashing new pose." Likewise, at one point in the film, against the strains of "Mona Lisa," we are treated to a glimpse of the Saddam Art Center--a museum on the order of the Louvre or the Prado--assuming you wish to see nothing but paintings of Saddam.
Much as his son Uday enthuses over Iraq's sporting culture (so much so that he often jails the Iraqi soccer team when they lose a game), Saddam is a patron of the arts. According to "Uncle Saddam," children are required to perform songs at school about the greatness of his legacy, which, in the libertine spirit of Hussein, they're also permitted to sing at home--just for fun. One of his favorite jokes reportedly, is "If your TV is broken, just put my poster on it." Saddam Hussein--a stitch, who knew?
While "Uncle Saddam" is light on its feet, with its glib, parodic overlay--it actually turns out to be a fairly important document, chronicling how dismal and dangerous it is when an entire nation becomes an extension of one man's twisted psyche. As for Joel Soler, after getting back to California in one piece, he found his home defaced with red paint, had three of his trash cans filled with gasoline and set ablaze, and was left this valentine: "In the name of Allah, the merciful and compassionate, burn this satanic film or you will be dead."
Thankfully, Soler hasn't burned it. But if you expect him to stand up without any fear, and to strike a blow for freedom of the press and Christendom, think again. As he told the Associated Press two years ago, "I'm taking it really seriously. I'm not gonna sleep anymore in my house. I'm gonna leave now for a few weeks or a few months. Go into hiding, I'm scared."
Joel Soler may be many things, but he isn't crazy.