ABC Africa

Jan 30, 2002 at 12:00 am

The prospect of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami doing a documentary on the plight of the millions of Ugandan children orphaned by AIDS is not necessarily a promising one. A documentary, filtered as it my be by editing and selective point of view, is a vehicle for information, a quality Kiarostami’s minimalist features are famous for withholding. Additionally, the Ugandan tragedy is both epic and blunt, two more characteristics not associated with this master of the quiet moment passively recorded. And yet ABC Africa, which started as a commission from an agricultural agency of the United Nations and is filmed on digital video, manages to reveal the awfulness of its subject while remaining a recognizable addition to the Kiarostami canon.

Aside from the signature shots from inside a car — Kiarostami has always filmed like a tourist, even in his own country — we recognize the director’s trademark faith in the ability of the image to reveal more than the word can say. Statistical information is given fleeting attention before the director goes into his observational mode. And even then there’s an abiding indirectness. We do get the expected hospital sequence, and it is moving and grim, but mostly the director points his camera at children. They then proceed to do what children all over the world do in such a situation; mug, clown and dance. In this context, the obliviousness of normal childlike behavior seems especially poignant. Kiarostami’s eventual choice to focus on everyday life — children in school, young mothers getting nutritional instructions — elicits a sadness much deeper than a series of more grisly sequences would have.

At one point in the film, besieged by mosquitoes and worried about malaria, Kiarostami says, “Dying from AIDS is a consequence of a choice made in life; dying of an insect bite is the ultimate betrayal.” This isn’t quite as spectacularly callous (and ignorant) as it may seem at first, since the Ugandan problem mainly involves unprotected heterosexual sex and the solution has been framed as a matter of choice (huge billboards advertising prophylactics loom in the cities). Still, it’s a reminder that Kiarostami comes from a deeply religious, rigorously patriarchal society, which makes ABC Africa just a little more remarkable: Whatever his beliefs, he recorded what he found and the result is a sad and rather graceful film.

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].