The specters of those dual devils “commission” and “committee” (twin stumbling blocks that often trip up cinema’s artists while sustaining its corrupters) hang darkly over Abbas Kiarostami’s ABC Africa, the great Iranian director’s first public foray into the world of digital video. Invited by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) to visit AIDS-stricken Uganda and bring light to the ongoing efforts of the Uganda Women’s Efforts to Save Orphans (UWESO), Kiarostami embarked on a 10-day excursion with cameraman Seyfolah Samadian to capture DV impressions of a country ravaged by disease and poverty. The intention, according to certain sources, was for the video recordings to be one part of a larger documentary, but Kiarostami ultimately decided that the footage could stand on its own and so released the completed 84-minute project to a rather blindly adoring critical audience that nonetheless featured its fair share of vocal “emperor’s new clothes” detractors.
And so it continues to this day: Now, it seems, one must either be for Kiarostami or against him with no middle ground given, so what does it say that the often astounding ABC Africa feels somewhat heavy-handed and tentative at times, a kind of rough-hewn step for the director—in toto, according to his own statements—from the world of celluloid into the world of video? Far from the stubborn cinephiles among us, it’s my belief that Kiarostami’s change of aesthetic path was only initially disconcerting, even if it only came to fruition in the recent form of his superb festival- and museum-screened masterpiece Five Long Takes Dedicated to Ozu. Much like his follow-up video project Ten, ABC Africa plays rather distressingly as a movie of dueling motivations, caught between impulses both impressionistic and propagandistic. Yet unlike Ten, I’d argue that the latter sentiment comes in no way from ABC Africa‘s director (being more clearly a product of the project’s origins) and that the upsetting sense of dual intention apparent at the movie’s outset finally plays out inspiringly in its favor.
Upon its initial release, I recall several critics and viewers lobbing the “liberal guilt” hand grenade at ABC Africa, an understandable reaction considering the didactic nature of certain scenes, especially those featuring UWESO members testifying to their group’s educational good. (And what is liberal guilt but a removed, “right-thinking” viewpoint veiled in experience-phobic safety blankets weaved from the best intentions?) Yet this simultaneously knee-jerk accusation constitutes a grave misreading of Kiarostami’s efforts, for ABC Africa‘s consistently engaged and engaging mise-en-scène testifies to the director’s general lack of interest—flawed though it may be in the moment—in his movie’s commissioned, informational side. Kiarostami is an individual first and foremost, and he doesn’t pretend (as many documentarians might) that groups such as IFAD and UWESO have the unimpeachable shoulders upon which to bear a country’s ills.
This is not to say that he condemns them, but rather places these sanctioned support systems into the proper context through explicit and/or implicit juxtaposition of image and sound. Over a few particularly affecting scenes, Kiarostami captures certain insidious Catholic anti-sex posters (that feature Pope John Paul II striking a pose of ignorant benevolence) decorating the walls of an AIDS clinic, follows two clinic workers laughing and joking with each other amid the cries of the afflicted, and observes the hastily wrapped body of a deceased child being carried away in a makeshift cardboard stretcher. Kiarostami’s visuals have always had the potent feel of poetry in motion—of simple parables rhyming and coupling with each other in a reach for the sublime—and, taken together, this section of ABC Africa addresses the simultaneous joy and tragedy of a people threatened by a disease (more or less materialized from ether) that is all-too-quickly paving the way for the modernist and colonialist beliefs of “civilization.”
Kiarostami finds a visual parallel to this sense of encroachment in ABC Africa‘s title character—an orphan baby girl, adopted by a European couple, who spends her last few days in her home country wandering, gazing at, and listening to sights and sounds that she will probably never recall beyond subconscious impressions. The surrogate parents calmly defend their choice to remove her from this disease- and poverty-stricken nation; to an extent this is the “right” choice and Kiarostami doesn’t outwardly question their intent. Yet there remains an uneasiness to the situation, a subtle sense of selfish desire and entitlement on the part of the surrogate parents that coexists with their admirable desire to help a seeming unfortunate. I emphasize “seeming” here, because what precedes the introduction of ABC Africa‘s title character are sequences that are anything but unfortunate (or, perhaps more appropriately, everything and unfortunate). For Kiarostami, at his best, captures an entire spectrum of existence that in no way harps on simplistically singular or dichotomous emotions. The deceptive simplicity of his poetry, for example, most often masks a profound complexity, as in this passage from his collection Walking With The Wind:
It grew large and still larger.
It grew full
and turned small and smaller.
a moonless night.
There is a sense here of an encroaching darkness humbly met, unburdened by one-note feelings such as fear or joy and simply experienced as a profound moment of enlightenment. So it is with ABC Africa, which finds its own enlightened moments via a series of “musical” sequences. Featuring fourth-wall-breaking close-ups of numerous African faces and often set to on-location musical accompaniment, these scenes effectively demystify the dour aura evoked by “AIDS” (and, indeed, “Africa”) when written as text or spoken as mantra. That at least one of these sequences is clearly staged (and interestingly attains the deep-felt Technicolor enormity of the best Golden Age Hollywood production numbers), while others are captured via spontaneous tracking and pan shots, only adds to the generosity of Kiarostami’s cinema sense. As indicated by a mid-movie section that, appropriate to the above-mentioned poem, takes place in total darkness, Kiarostami is on as much of a journey as his audience, each of us engaging—in our own inimitable ways—with a world shrouded in divine mystery. For all of ABC Africa‘s flaws of concession, it is nonetheless cinema that bravely takes its audience beyond a blinding, conception-plagued veil and into a realm of simple, glorious truth.