A Darkness Cast Upon Childhood - "ABC Africa" Review

By A.O. Scott The New York Times

Halfway through "ABC Africa," Abbas Kiarostami's new documentary, the screen goes dark. It is midnight, and the power has been turned off in the Ugandan city of Masaka, leaving the director and members of his small crew, who had been filming a cloud of mosquitoes, with no illumination. And for about five long minutes, the audience is also in the dark, listening to idle conversation (in Farsi, with English subtitles) as the portable, battery-powered digital video camera keeps rolling.

The decision to keep shooting in complete darkness, and to include the results in a film about Ugandan children orphaned by the successive disasters of civil war and AIDS, is reminiscent of moments in Mr. Kiarostami's other films. It calls attention simultaneously to the medium's limitations and to its power, to the objectivity of the camera and to the artifice involved in even its simplest use. "ABC Africa" -- like "Close Up," "Where Is the Friend's House" and other of Mr. Kiarostami's films that are not explicitly documentaries -- is, in part, a reflection on its own making.

At the beginning, Mr. Kiarostami, perhaps the most acclaimed Iranian filmmaker of the last 15 years, receives a fax from the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development inviting him to make a movie about a project the fund supports in Uganda, and to bring attention to the plight of that country's orphans, whose numbers are estimated to be at least 1.6 million. The commission is straightforward, and "ABC Africa," which opens today in Manhattan, fulfills it straightforwardly, visiting a pediatric AIDS clinic and an open-air school and documenting the innovative locally based economic assistance program that helps rural women care for children who have lost parents to AIDS and to war.

Much of what we see is heartbreaking: a dying child crying out from a bed in a crowded ward; another child's tiny body shrouded in a sheet and being taken away for burial on the back of a bicycle. At times, the film's intentions seem close to those of a Save the Children appeal on television, though without the pleas for money. It feels intrusive, almost exploitative, when the camera lingers on the round, eager faces of the children who follow members of the film crew in the alleys and marketplaces.

Yet somehow the film also, without overt comment, acknowledges its ethical risks. There is some aggression in Mr. Kiarostami's method, but also great delicacy and tact. He is also clearly intoxicated by the verdant beauty of Uganda, which could not be more different from the austere, parched Iranian landscapes captured in his earlier films, and by the liveliness and resilience of its people. Death may shadow every moment of "ABC Africa"; those five minutes of darkness are surely a metaphor for its unimaginable power. But what is on screen, above all, is life.

Taking pictures of other people, whether they are suffering or celebrating, is a complex undertaking, even though (or perhaps precisely because) the act of pointing a camera and pressing a button is so simple. Mr. Kiarostami's genius is to capture both the simplicity and the complication. The richness and emotional impact of "ABC Africa" comes partly from the balance it achieves between the director's personality (he appears occasionally, middle-aged, wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses and rarely without a camera) and his vast, terrible subject. He never pretends to have mastered the subject -- the film's title suggests the elementary state of his knowledge -- or to be able to solve Uganda's problems by observing them. But you come away from his film overwhelmed, hopeful and, perhaps paradoxically, illuminated.

Originally Published May 3, 2002

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