Abbas Kiarostami’s “ABC Africa” represents a radical departure for its director: it’s a feature-length documentary — his first fully nonfiction work since the disarming “Homework” in 1989; it’s his first film to be shot outside of Iran; and it’s his first work shot entirely on digital video. Yet “ABC Africa,” which takes place amid the children’s hospitals and orphanages of AIDS-stricken, war-ravaged Uganda, is a return to the unfettered examination of children’s issues that dates back to Kiarostami’s earliest shorts, and a continuation of the exploration of life and death begun in “Life and Nothing More.” This predominately English-lingo docu should see international arthouse exposure, while the topicality of the subject matter — and Kiarostami’s remarkably sensitive treatment of it — should also attract the attention of world affairs and docu-centric television outfits.
A fax machine rings, and a transmittal, sent to Kiarostami by the United Nations’ Intl. Fund for Agricultural Development, slowly makes its way across the gray screen. The letter proposes that Kiarostami (who, in 1997, was the recipient of the U.N.’s Fellini medal for his humanitarian filmmaking) travel to Africa to document the efforts of the Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans (UWESO). The volunteer org provides desperately needed care for the nation’s estimated 1.6 million orphans. More help is needed, and this, ostensibly, will be the purpose of Kiarostami’s docu.
Kiarostami goes to Uganda on a pre-production location scout, but he soon finds himself making the actual film. It’s hardly a new sensation for a director who has done some of his most stunning work by similarly rushing into the turbulent wake of current events, from the Hossein Sabzian trial of “Close-Up” to the Koker earthquake of “Life and Nothing More.” And here, despite the intimidating vastness of Africa and its myriad tragedies, he digs in, as in all his work, to find the microcosmic incident that suggests a larger, fundamental (and, frequently, existential) question.
Kiarostami immerses himself into the alien cultural environment here, in turn discovering as much about himself (and humanity) as he does about the chosen locale. And in the way of “Life and Nothing More” (a fictionalized work that, nevertheless, is the Kiarostami film to which “ABC Africa” bears the greatest resemblance), there is a close attenuation here to the subtle tricks of fate that dictate the difference between a life preserved and a tragic ending.
Given the bent of most African news coverage, viewers might assume that Kiarostami’s trip would yield only heartbreaking images of death and destruction. But while such images are present — the workaday ordinariness with which a hospital nurse packages a young corpse into a makeshift cardboard coffin may be the most shattering — Kiarostami is more likely to turn his attention to a gaggle of Ugandan children erupting into joyous song on a muddied city street, their wide-eyed awe drawing them wondrously toward the camera’s lens. For him, this is the true essence of the situation: Despite the devastation of years of bloody civil war and disease, an entire generation here seems suffused with an irrepressible, unsentimental hopefulness and optimism.
This adaptability may be the most marvelous and beguiling of all human virtues, Kiarostami suggests. And the sentiment is never more profoundly, movingly articulated than in an entire sequence played out in darkness, as Kiarostami and his crew stumble to navigate their way back to their hotel rooms after a surprise midnight blackout. It is one of the greatest sequences in all his work.
With the newfound freedom of his handheld DV cameras, Kiarostami shoots Africa with an uncanny verisimilitude, coming close here to his idea of a “poetic cinema” indebted more to poetry and music than the theatrical novelistic storytelling tradition.
What’s missing? Perhaps the ingenious tromp-l’oeil perspectives and tableaus of the mirrored bookends that were “Taste of Cherry” and “The Wind Will Carry Us.” But these narrative devices aren’t missed so much as they are supplanted by a grander immediacy — a rush of handmade ceramic images and lilting folk songs that builds to a single moment of ethereal beauty, seen from the window of a departing airplane.