Dir: Abbas Kiarostami. Iran. 2001. 83 mins.
Commissioned to raise international awareness of the work being done by the Uganda Women's Effort To Save Orphans (UWESO), ABC Africa is a surprisingly straightforward return to the documentary form from Palme D'Or winner Abbas Kiarostami. Largely eschewing the heartache and misery of the country's recent history and global image, his film celebrates the joyful resilience of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming odds. Kiarostami's reputation should be sufficient to earn it wider exposure, with further festival screenings and selective television sales a matter of course.
Initially crammed with information, the documentary informs us that the organisation was formed in 1986 as a response to the orphan problem arising from civil war casualties. The ravages of AIDS have only exacerbated the situation and it is estimated that by 2002 close to 2 million orphans will exist in a country with a population of 22 million. UWESO is a volunteer foundation that organises collective responses to the problem as communities of women join forces to offer support and financial planning for the future welfare of the orphan children.
Typically, Kiarostami cuts through the dry statistics to sculpt a profoundly human response to the issue. Filmed over ten days with handheld dv cameras, his film captures images of empowerment and hope, constantly accentuating good cheer over painful lamentation. He lingers over the smiling faces of curious children who are eager to play to the camera, expressing their joy in song and dance. He lets us hear of the remarkable women who have taken it upon themselves to carry the burden of the country's future, including a 72 year-old whose 11 children have all died from AIDS and who has now assumed responsibility for 35 children.
When the tragedy is brought home to us, it is with a casual almost throwaway gesture like the filming at an AIDS Support Organisation in Masaka where a dead child's makeshift coffin is casually improvised from a cardboard box and swaddling.
Kiarostami seems unwilling to editorialise- he questions no officials, demands no expert testimony but merely gives an impressionistic view of all the signs of life that surround him. Nevertheless, there is enough here to set anyone thinking particularly on the influence of a Catholic Church that believes celibacy to be the only defence against the spread of AIDS and HIV. One solitary sequence reminds us of the more austere elements in Kiarostami's fiction but this too serves a purpose. At one hotel where they stay, Kiarostami and his crew learn the hard way that the electricity is cut off at midnight. They stumble around in the dark trying to retrace their footsteps and return to their room and the viewer is left staring at a pitch black screen. A voice reminds us that in some areas of the country there is no electricity. In houses where twenty or more orphans reside, life is dictated by the rising and setting of the sun and there is no television, no internet, none of the technological clutter that increasingly defines Western civilisation.
The ability to value the human soul in any situation remains a Kiarostami trademark and makes ABC Africa as much of a Kiarostami film as any of his more revered fictional works. Here too, the images speak for themselves and the subject is the simple matter of life and death.
Prod co Abbas Kiarostami Productions
Int'l sales MK2
Prods Kiarostami, Marin Karmitz
Cinematography Seifollah Samadian.
Editor Abbas Kiarostami