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ABC AFRICA(director: Abbas Kiarostami; cinematographer: Seifollah Samadian; editor: Abbas Kiarostami; Runtime: 84; MPAA Rating: NR; New Yorker Films; 2001-Iran/Uganda-in English and Farsi with English subtitles)

“An upbeat personal film telling in an amiable touristy way the story of the Ugandan orphans.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Internationally acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami (“The Wind Will Carry Us”/”Taste of Cherry”/Life and Nothing More”) was invited by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) to film in the East African country of Uganda. The organization wanted to draw attention to the ongoing crisis caused by a deadly civil war from the 1980s and the current AIDS epidemic. The result of these catastrophes for a population of 22 million is that there are 2 million dead, 2 million infected with HIV, and approximately 1.6 million orphans. The UWESO (Uganda Women’s Efforts to Save Orphans) has come up with a plan to save the orphans and believe Kiarostami’s film will give their efforts positive publicity throughout the world community.

Kiarostami brought along his small crew using hand-held digital video cameras, and filmed for ten days. Considering the morbid subject matter, which the filmmaker does not turn his back on (visits an AIDS health clinic and shows a dead child being carted away in a cardboard box), this is nevertheless an upbeat personal film telling in an amiable touristy way the story of the Ugandan orphans that is easy to relate to while it also points out the complexities and enormity of the problem without turning us off with endless details. The director is more interested in telling us how it really is in an elementary way rather than pretending to know it all. Kiarostami leaves us his impressions of the crisis and wants us to at least understand the struggle and see some of the faces of the children affected.

In the Ugandan capital of Kampala, the filmmaker loves shooting out of the car and connects with the majestic expansive landscape that contrasts with the ugly sightings of the ravages of war (destroyed homes), poverty and diseases (AIDS and malaria). Using his camera in a cinema verité style, the filmmaker follows the many orphans around and catches them in spontaneous moments and at a kindergarten school mugging for the camera, going into joyous song and dance, sitting with their women guardians at a teaching seminar sponsored by UWESO, offering up million dollar smiles, and overall catching the resiliency of the children to adapt to their troubling situation. One fortunate orphan girl dressed in a blouse with ABC written across it was adopted by an Austrian family. She was found on the streets by a nun, as the couple learned about her from a priest.

Perhaps the film’s most poignant moment comes when the film crew is surprised to learn that the lights in their hotel in the undeveloped city of Masaka get turned off at midnight and they had to make their way to their rooms in complete darkness, which they filmed for the five dark minutes it took them to reach their rooms. This helpless feeling is compared to how the Ugandans live in the dark all their life once the sun goes down, without electricity, TV or the Internet. The filmmaker points out that once you know the situation you adapt to it, but for only five minutes it’s a burden. The dark spell ends with a lightning storm illuminating the landscape and providing the filmmaker with a dramatically ready-made hopeful visual metaphor for such dark times.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”