Flicks - Hussein in the membrane

Uncle Saddam is an irreverent expose on Iraq's leader

The cheeky documentary Uncle Saddam raises the question, "What's funny about Saddam Hussein?" French filmmaker Joel Soler offers a brisk and occasionally glib portrait of the Iraqi leader, as if Michael Moore had done Saddam and Me. But even though the film takes a snarky, skeptical look at Hussein's public life, it never forgets that, as the leader of an Orwellian tyranny, he's no laughing matter.

Soler shot Uncle Saddam in Iraq in 1999 under the guise of doing a film about architecture, and the shots of Iraqi locations often go by quickly, creating an impression of footage taken surreptitiously or on the fly.

The film begins with the highlights of Hussein's history, such as when, as a precocious 22-year-old, he attempted to kill the Iraqi President. After spending years in and out of favor, he had established himself as "a sort of Kennedy of the Middle East" before seizing power himself.

Uncle Saddam can be neatly divided into two halves, and the first could be called "Lifestyles of the Rich and Infamous," as it tours Hussein's cult of personality. The film reveals personal quirks like a phobia of germs so pronounced that he requires visitors to shower before entering his presence.

The film's English translation was written by Scott Thompson and narrated by Wallace Langham (both comic actors from HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show"). The voiceovers tend to be arch and sarcastic, as when we hear, "It's no secret why Saddam is Iraq's biggest heartthrob," over shots of the dictator in swim trunks. But harsher sentiments can come through. An account of his voluminous gun collection is inter-cut with blurry video of firing squads (although its source isn't specified).

Uncle Saddam focuses a great deal on Saddam's material holdings, which reveal few deep insights but offer information you don't find on the nightly news. In architecture alone, Hussein demonstrates hubris on a level that's almost literally Biblical, as in his rebuilding the city of Babylon — with his name on every new brick. He's also constructing the world's largest mosque, on a site that includes an island in the shape of his own thumb, contoured like his fingerprint.

Only briefly do Saddam's subjects appear on camera, and most of them are mousy government apologists. The most unsettling scene has giggly teens talking about "Uncle Saddam" as if he has the charisma of a Backstreet Boy.

The film's second half looks at Hussein's family tree, identifying the relatives he installed in his inner circle upon seizing power, most of whom he since betrayed or forced out. It's like "Dynasty Does Baghdad." We learn of his infidelities to his first wife, Sajida, "The First Lady of Iraq," and the film plays Lyle Lovett's "Stand By Your Man" during footage of her public appearances. The family members who flourish prove both the most obedient and brutal, like the cousin nicknamed "Chemical Ali," who is credited with gassing the Kurds.

Since so many of Hussein's kinfolk are either dead or under house arrest, the background stories come, at best, from second-hand sources. A journalist recounts a remarkable shootout between Hussein's estranged sons-in-law and Iraqi military forces, which eventually destroy the building sheltering the husbands of Hussein's daughters. But in the end, the film recounts so many family machinations at such a clip that it becomes bewildering.

Uncle Saddam includes grim footage of children languishing in Iraqi hospitals, accompanying a critique of the United Nations embargo of the nation. But that's the film's only real geopolitical message, and it otherwise occupies ground in the center. By not dwelling much on Hussein's chemical weapons capabilities or expansionist ambitions, Uncle Saddam won't add much to the national debate over our potential war with Iraq — assuming such a debate still exists.