Abbas Kiarostami – ABC Africa (2001)


Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami has often concerned himself with children striving to make the best of difficult circumstances, and this documentary finds him capturing a real-life corollary to the fictional tales of his best-known work. At the request of the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development, Kiarostami traveled to Africa to make a film about the work of the Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans, a volunteer group established to provide food, shelter, and care for the more than one-and-a-half-million children left to fend for themselves in a nation torn apart by war, poverty, and the AIDS epidemic. While Kiarostami’s first visit was planned so he could see the country and map out what he would film, he brought along some digital video equipment, and upon arrival, he was so struck by what he saw that he immediately began to record the events around him, in which the tragedies of this struggling nation were contrasted with the warmth and boundless optimism of the children looking for a better life. (Mark Deming, All Movie Guide)


Abbas Kiarostami’s documentary on AIDS in Uganda is devastating not only because of its subject matter, but also because of the way it reveals Kiarostami’s boundless humanism. Departing from the carefully composed, static landscape shots that recur in his features, he uses a handheld digital video camera to capture the fabric of Ugandan life through long, graceful, meandering shots which often follow groups of unruly children who seem as captivated by him as he is by them. It’s a stylistic departure that only proves his talent. More importantly, his interactions with the children, such as showing them how the camera works and encouraging them to participate in what he’s doing, includes them in the film in a way that frees them from the clichés of silent suffering and humble nobility that mar many documentaries about Africa. By doing so, he achieves an intimacy with his subjects that is rarely seen, and which makes their undeniable suffering even more saddening. The film’s single most horrifying sequence shows the body of an AIDS victim being placed on a piece of cardboard and carted off on the back of a bicycle. This single image somehow manages, through its detached, almost unreal quality, to say everything that needs to be said. (As if to purge himself of its horror, Kiarostami is seen in the next scene clapping along with an exuberant ensemble of traditional singers.) There is no narration ABC Africa. One gets the feeling that words would only detract from images that derive their power from the immense empathy one can’t but help feel emanating from the man behind the camera. (Tom Vick, All Movie Guide)


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