No director mixes the filming experience with daily life routines
better than Abbas Kiarostami, whose best films revolve around real life
events. Most of them are set in Iran, like And Life Goes On, a docu-drama about the devastating earthquake in the Koker region. This time Kiarostami abandons his usual blending of fact and fiction with a more or less "straight" documentary about the severe challenges facing the children in Uganda, where the civil war and AIDS crisis have orphaned over one and a half million children!
If you expect a standard documentary, think again. ABC Africa is a Kiarostami film, so the filmmaker's experience is recorded, and we are continually reminded that this is much like a digitally shot home movie—except with far more artistry and production values.
Beginning in darkness, we hear a FAX machine and then see the incoming message as a voice-over informs us that the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development asks Kiarostami to make a film about Uganda Women's Effort to Save Orphans (UWESCO). Rather than cut straight to Uganda, the filmmaker takes us through the journey—including shots of the plane landing and shuttle drive to their Kampala hotel before visiting various villages, schools, hospitals, and treatment centers. Ubiquitous billboards advertising Lifeguard condoms ("for your protection") find prominence on screen, though this has done little to quell the AIDS epidemic in the predominantly Catholic country, where the only birth control methods prescribed by the government are abstinence and natural family planning (the rhythm method).
Normal films chronicling this subject matter would focus on despairing images of emaciated and sad-eyed sick children. You know the type—the exploitative Save the Children fundraising appeals that intrude on our televisions. And Kiarostami includes a few such images, most notably during the sequence at an AIDS treatment center, where the camera lingers on the face of a dying child. The most uncomfortable moments take place when center workers fashion a makeshift cardboard coffin to cart out a small body on a bicycle. These images, along with the unfathomable numbers of orphaned children and pictures of a grandmother now caring for thirty-five children in her tiny hut all underlie the film, yet Kiarostami intends much more than another maudlin emotional appeal.
He's clearly fascinated by the verdant life and culture, and the majority of the film centers on the brightly clothed women and smiling, laughing children who ham it up for the camera in every village. The director appears frequently as well, always with camera in hand—a tourist drinking in all the experience he can while continually seeking subjects to film. There's no set script—just a keen artistic eye and a desire to incorporate as much local culture and music as he can. As a tourist, unfamiliar with the area, Kiarostami chooses not to appear as expert, recording his experiences as he goes.
Naturally, any Kiarostami film includes lots of vehicle scenes in real time that take us from scene to scene, and his most striking sequence begins in total darkness. When staying in the village of Masaka, all power goes off at midnight; hotel guests are warned to carry flashlights with them to navigate during the nightly blackout. Kiarostami's camera is fascinated by giant mosquitoes flying about a single light when abruptly everything goes pitch black; the camera continues to roll, making us more aware of the limits of technology and how dependent we are upon it. Most filmmakers would edit this sequence out—after all, five minutes of complete darkness with only conversational voices would normally kill a film—however, in this case it serves as the most eloquent means of portraying the Ugandan village life. For a few moments we experience their lifestyle, devoid as it is of television, movies, the Internet. Of course, audiences used to action films with lots of special effects will experience the same barrenness in ABC Africa or in any Kiarostami film.
What Kiarostami captures is the essence of Ugandan life, much like the Austrian couple who have come to Kampala to pick up their adopted baby daughter, decked with an "ABC" T-shirt that inspires the film's title. The couple explains how they want to be able to describe the culture of their baby daughter's native land, so they visit the village markets to get a sense of the country. Kiarostami asks them if they can truly gain an understanding from so brief an encounter. They believe they can, and Kiarostami profoundly displays Uganda's life and culture through his touristy pictures, as deceptively simple as the alphabet. Strangely, what we walk away with is a sense of the colorful beauty of the region and the joyful nature of the children left in the wake of the devastating civil war and AIDS epidemic, again reminding us that hope continues to spring from the most unlikely places.