The secret life of 'Uncle Saddam'

Film that skewers eccentricities of Iraqi dictator to be released on DVD


March 30, 2003

The timing, says the film's distributor, is just a coincidence.

But this week, as the war in Iraq likely rages on, Xenon Pictures will release on DVD Uncle Saddam, a satirical documentary that portrays Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as a personal hygiene fanatic who likes to fish with grenades.

Uncle Saddam, made by French freelance journalist Joel Soler in 2000 and broadcast on Cinemax last November, is due in stores Wednesday. The DVD package includes a "100 percent anti-Saddam" sticker and "dictators of the world" trading cards.

"One of the best ways to confront evil is to laugh at it," Xenon Vice President Stephen Housden said.

What follows is a review of Uncle Saddam that television critic Hal Boedeker of the Orlando Sentinel wrote when it aired last fall:

Call him the finicky Iraqi. Germs terrify leader Saddam Hussein, and every week doctors determine the perfect temperature for his office. He never sleeps more than two nights in a row in the same location.

He owns a huge collection of hats, many bulletproof. He dyes his mustache to project a more youthful image. He loves to fish with grenades.

The documentary Uncle Saddam lasts only 63 minutes, but it's packed with telling details and turbulent family history. What's most unusual about the program is its mocking, lighthearted tone.

"Before I went to Iraq, I had an image of him as a boring guy," says French director-producer Joel Soler. "I saw the contrary. I was so surprised everything was campy. I wanted to give that tone to the movie."

Scott Thompson of comedy troupe Kids in the Hall wrote the breezy narration, which actor Wallace Langham speaks with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

But the making of the film was hardly funny. Soler spent nearly two months in Iraq during 1999 on the pretext of doing a film opposing U.N. sanctions on the country. Iraqi agents fumed that Soler had shut them out of an interview he conducted with Saddam's interior designer. They later took the filmmaker to a hospital, where a nurse prepared to do blood tests.

Soler demanded to see his ambassador, and the agents gave him an ultimatum: Either leave Iraq or undergo the tests.

"What do you think I chose?" Soler asks. "I left right away."

It took him three months to smuggle the footage out of the country. The U.S. State Department told him that the interior designer died from poisoning a month after the interview. He learned that the agents were punished for not guessing his stealthy purposes. And he knows that Saddam has seen the movie and is furious about it.

The satirical tone might seem improbable, but Saddam gives the filmmaker a lot to skewer. He gives speeches on his diet and requested a liposuction machine. Montages of bouquets accompany his television appearances. "If your TV is broken, just put my poster on it," Saddam has joked.

The joke in Iraq is that there are 20 million Iraqis and 20 million images of Saddam. Soler adds the song "Mona Lisa" to scenes of an art museum filled with Saddam portraits. But producer Aaron Spelling vetoed letting Soler use the Dynasty theme during a recap of Saddam's family history.

Soler provides fascinating looks at two palaces and other landmarks, such as a rebuilt Babylon, a mosque that will be the largest in the world and a posh resort built around an artificial lake. While Saddam spends lavishly on his projects, most of his people make $3 a month.

"My biggest concern, honestly, is for the Iraqi people," Soler says. "This guy doesn't respect anything. Now what you see with the embargo, if he wanted to save the people, he has the money to do so."

Soler's next film, tentatively titled Uncle Bin, will look at Osama bin Laden. Yemen ordered him out of the country as he tried to interview the terrorist's relatives.

"The movie on Saddam was so easy to do compared to this one," he says. "Some people attacked me in Lebanon because of that movie. They dragged me on the floor. I will talk about it when it's released."

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