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Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami is best known for films like A Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us, quiet meditations that often use wordless observation and casts of children to offer slices of humanity. It may have seemed a perfect fit for the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) to offer Kiarostami the opportunity to travel to Uganda with the purpose of documenting the Uganda Women's Effort to Save Orphans (UWESO), a huge undertaking in the face of the tremendous impact of poverty, civil war, malaria, and HIV/AIDS. With 1.6 million children in Uganda having lost one or both parents, the coming problems faced by these orphans are almost beyond comprehension. And the temptation to make a maudlin, plainly-emotional documentary would be there.
But that's not Kiarostami's style, for better or worse. The resulting film, ABC Africa, is a visual exploration of the environments and faces of Uganda's people, young and old. But it's also an infuriatingly shallow exercise in self-indulgence, with the filmmaker spending tremendous amounts of time documenting minute details while brushing over major points.
The film begins with a long, long drive through the country as the director approaches his first hotel. This sort of wordless landscape (a recent fixation of Gus Van Zandt as well) might serve a film in the right context: The viewer may take the time to contemplate what they've seen, as if they too were stuck on a long journey with only their mind to keep them company. But Kiarostami hasn't even shown us anything yet. The drive is followed by a long lecture on the financing for UWESO. The droning voice doesn't give us a sense of what it feels like to be there, only the text book statistic version. We do get to see many of the faces of the locals, but we don't meet any of them. Kiarostami is in love with the intense gaze of the Ugandan people, but he doesn't get inside their heads. It's possible that he hopes to "challenge" us with these fixed stares, but his audience already cares: We're here. We want to learn. No need to stare us down.
He does offer a glimpse of a poster commemorating a visit to Uganda from the Pope some years back. Coupled with a driver's comments that the catholic church has urged Africans to not use condoms so as not to promote promiscuity, this image hints at the potential subject matter for a more conventional documentary: How do outside influences on issues such as condoms affect a nation with an out of control AIDS crisis? But Kiarostami isn't interested in any such obvious questions.
His next sequence features a visit to an AIDS hospice where the infected children are truly heartbreaking, as is the sight of a nurse shaping a piece of discarded cardboard into a basket to hold the tiny, limp body of a dead child.
But again Kiarostami isn't interested in spending time on normal issues like that. Instead we get a Blair Witch-esque sequence where the filmmaker and his partners get caught outside their hotel after the electricity is turned off for the night. Stumbling through intense darkness, we're treated to an endless blank screen with voices discussing the importance of flashlights.
And so it goes for the 85 minutes of ABC Africa's running time. Kiarostami may be a fiercely independent filmmaker, but his film, produced with the intention of publicizing the Ugandan orphan situation, ends up offering little emotional resonance for audiences to grab hold of.
The full-screen video was shot on DV tape and looks pretty sharp. The colors are vibrant and the images are reasonably free of compression artifacts, but it does resemble a home video in a lot of ways.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is mostly fine, although there is hardly ever anything to hear. The voices are mostly in English or Farsi with English subtitles. No additional subtitles are available, which is a shame because even in the English parts the accents are thick and the audio isn't always clear.
A documentary on Kiarostami called "The Art of Living" is included which incorporates interviews with the filmmaker, assorted film critics, and clips from his filmography. It's a nice way to learn more about the director. The excerpts from his other works, shot on film and more cinematic than ABC Africa, come from very worn film prints, but they give a sense of how the director deals with scenes that he was able to orchestrate, rather than simply observe.
There is also a trailer for the film, as well as for some other New Yorker Films releases as well.
ABC Africa is an unfulfilling documentary that never gives the viewer a sense of Uganda and its people. The fact that he barely speaks with any Ugandans throughout the film is hurtful, as is the amount of time he spends interviewing a white European couple who are in the process of adopting an African baby. Scenarios like this serve only to widen the gap between the viewer and the African people, not reduce it. By allowing his camera to gaze at the faces of Ugandan children endlessly Kiarostami shows that patronizing exoticism isn't necessarily a Western construct.