Directed by Abbas Kiarostami (2001)
Asked by the UN International Fund for Economic Development (IFAD) to make a film documenting the plight of millions of Ugandan orphans ravaged by the recent civil war and the scourge of AIDS, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami responded with something much more, a personal and poetic film that allows us to see the people, the land, and the culture of Uganda without relentless images of despair. The documentary, ABC Africa, captures a kaleidoscope of faces of children and adults that display an enthusiasm for life that belies the grim statistics. The children of Kampala may be without parents but they are still children, ready to burst into wondrous song or dance, or simply mug for the camera when given the opportunity.
ABC Africa illuminates the work of the Uganda Women's Effort to Save orphans (UWESCO), an organization of women willing to adopt these children even though they may have many other mouths to feed. There is no voice-over narration in the film, only interviews with Ugandan relief workers who describe the extent of the problems they face. In trademark Kiarostami fashion, as a car drives through the streets of Kampala and the countryside, the digital hand-held camera records the passing scene, revealing both the beauty and the ugliness of Ugandan life. In one extraordinary sequence, we share the grief as the camera pans into a hospital for children dying of AIDS and follows a dead child being wrapped in a blanket and put into a makeshift cardboard box, then wheeled away on a bicycle to an unknown burial ground.
Equally memorable is a five-minute segment shot in total darkness inside a hotel where the power has failed due to regular midnight power cuts. All we hear is the conversation of two men in Farsi as they struggle to find their hotel room, a hint of the fear that Ugandans face each night and a metaphor for the darkness in which millions of Africans live. The film also shows the well-meaning but questionable efforts of a young Austrian family to adopt an orphaned girl found on the streets and bring her to Austria. Though some might have wanted ABC Africa to address the social, economic, and political causes that have left 1.6 million children without parents, Kiarostami's camera is simply present to each given moment and the result is a revelation.