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"Of all the movies I've seen this year, the one that has stayed most strongly in my mind is Abbas Kiarostami's ABC Africa." (Martin Scorsese)
Over the course of a ten-day visit to Uganda, Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us) uses his camera to capture and caress the faces of a thousand orphans. Although a documentary about the ravages of AIDS and civil war in Uganda may seem at first like a radical departure, one of the most remarkable things about ABC Africa is the way that Iran's most celebrated auteur makes such unlikely material very much his own.
In true Kiarostami style, an impressionistic, deceptively simple record of a journey becomes the film itself. This striking visual poem is full of echoes from his oeuvre: the hypnotic tracking shots from car windows, the dirt-road villages, the majestic landscapes and, above all, the emphasis on the resilience and resourcefulness of children.
Alternately heartbreaking and optimistic, ABC Africa records a people struggling to survive. Filled with laughter and music, and pulsing with life, Kiarostami's vision attests to Africa's sunny spirit
"Brimming with vital visual imagery and suffused with an exhilarating spirit of courage and endurance..." -- Ann Hornaday, Washington Post
"Remarkable... the most accessible film to date by Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami." -- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader
"Shattering... Profound... One of the ten best films of the year." -- Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune
"Surprisingly cheerful." -- J. Hoberman, The Village Voice
"You come away...hopeful... and illuminated." -- A.O. Scott, The New York Times
- ABBAS KIAROSTAMI: THE ART OF LIVING: a 55-minute documentary (2003), directed by Pat Collins and Fergus Daly
- Theatrical Trailer
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Kiarostami made a conscious decision to not make the children pose for the camera. Instead, he pointed it at them and let them do whatever they wanted, which usually ended up as dancing, waving and making goofy faces. Every picture of Africa we get shown in the US is an unbearably sad, victimized, and entirely fictional version of Africa. THIS is at least a few steps closer to the real thing.
The DVD itself has is decent but has issues, naturally. The video and audio quality both suffer, but it was recorded on digital cameras in 2000, so I doubt there's much more that could be done about it.
There is also a remarkable documentary about Kiarostami himself on the DVD, where many film critics (most notably Jonathan Rosenbaum, a Chicago Reader film critic and a huge admirer of Kiarostami's work) talk about Kiarostami, his background (which is much more diverse than I had thought), his relationship to Iran and how it impacts his filmmaking, and Kiarostami's philosohpy towards his art and filmmaking. Kiarostami is also a poet, and several of his poems are read during this documentary about his work. It's not surprising that Abbas writes poetry, as there is much poetry in his filmmaking.
ABC Africa is both uplifting and deeply sad at the same time, but Kiarostami manages to walk this fine balance so well, and ABC Africa is one of his most moving, memorable films. The documentary on Abbas himself is also wonderful.
Commissioned to make a film that would highlight the plight of orphans in Uganda, Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami chose to make a very different kind of film than the usual tragic but hopeful infomercials designed to pluck at the heartstrings and wallets of well-off Westerners. His film, that superficially resembles a spontaneous travelogue, shot on consumer-grade digital video cameras by a couple of Iranian tourists, does indeed portray the plight of orphaned children due to war and poverty and AIDS and other epidemics. At the same time, the film highlights the impossibility of summing up such a situation, of representing adequately such complex problems, or of offering simple solutions. Sending cash, adopting African babies, promoting sex education, are not sufficient. Even more, what the film aims to show is that Uganda is not just a "site of problems" but it is a place where children live and play, and laugh and dance, like children anywhere. The vitality of the children, their spontaneity and their promise, in spite of the difficulties, is the impression that sticks most strongly. What the filmmakers refuse to do is offer up an ostensibly objective account of the situation, the kind of documentary on Africa that is so common nowadays, when a news team flies in and after a whirlwind tour attempts to tell us a story that aims to sum things up for outsiders.
In spite of the seemingly arbitrary organization there is in fact a pattern that organizes the imagery and information presented in this unique documentary, that alternates between voices telling of devastation and of the systemic problems that make the situation seem intractable, local activists attempting to empower women to care for their children (there are few men, and it is explained why), and then images of children who smile and laugh and dance for the cameras, and images of adults who are more wary, cautious and suspicious. The whole is given structure by a flight into and then at the end out of Africa. The ending depicts the adoption of a Ugandan child by Austrian parents, who hope to be able to remind her of her origins when she is grown. If there is hope for her, the situation back in Uganda is more ambigous, and through the window of the plane we almost see the images of those not taken, for whom this is not a solution, etched on the clouds. The opening also establishes that whatever impressions we may garner from a single film about a complex culture and situation are bound to be incomplete, and as inadequate as any simplistic or one-sided solutions. We follow the filmmakers as they travel to Uganda, and see things from their perspective; and they make very clear that it is a partial perspective and don't pretend to objectivity. The fragmented character of their sometimes overwhelmed take on the situation they aim to depict is highlighted by a scene near the midpoint, that is perhaps the most obvious mark that this is an Abbas Kiarostami film. The scene reminds not only of the enigmatic ending of Taste of Cherry, but also of Kiarostami's general tendency to withhold information from his audience, to leave them guessing with only partial information, because he knows that their thinking they know what is crucial in the life of another is precisely what makes it impossible for them to empathize with or identify with that other.
In this pivotal scene at the midpoint, after which the perspective of Kiarostami and his partner gradually begin to make themselves less felt within the film, we begin with a shot of the lamppost where mosquitoes seem to glow like fireflies, illuminated by the brightness of the light. It is late and Kiarostami sits with his friend and partner, reflecting on what they have seen and suddenly the lights go out. This is a nightly occurrence, of which they had been only dimly aware and for which they hadn't prepared. They make their way back to their room in complete darkness as we hear rumblings of thunder in the distance. The camera is still rolling as Kiarostami enters his room and lies down in preparation for sleep. Suddenly, unexpectedly, there is illumination from the window as lightning strikes, once, twice ... a third time. Illumination, clarity regarding this or any situation this complex, only comes in fragments, and perhaps only for those who are willing to step outside of the comfort of the Westernized air conditioned hotel rooms that our filmmakers stay in to begin with, and enter into the reality of the situation, leaving behind the status of tourists and the comfort of their certainties. If only for a short time. There are no easy answers, we are told about the problems, but what you remember from this film is the dancing and the laughter of children.