Abbas Kiarostami pretty much ruled the international film circuit during the 1990s. With such works as Through the Olive Trees, Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us, the Iranian director managed to speak to both his native country and the whole rest of the world, in part by exploring the boundary between documentaries and feature films, reality and illusion, life and movies. A Kiarostami film is rarely just one thing. There are always levels within levels, various possible interpretations. But ABC Africa, Kiarostami's latest, may be the exception that proves the rule. A seemingly straightforward account of the director's trip to Uganda to make a documentary about the country's nearly two million orphans, ABC Africa feels a little bit like one of those making-of documentaries. The thing is, it's both a making-of documentary and the documentary itself. Maybe there are more levels than I thought.
It opens with Kiarostami receiving a fax from the United Nations' International Fund for Agricultural Development, which sponsors a program called Uganda Women's Efforts to Save Orphans, or UWESO. Decimated by civil war and AIDS, Uganda's population was having trouble raising its children. And a documentary about the coun.try's plight would go a long way toward raising awareness, not to mention money. Would Kiarostami come? Yes, he would come, but he would also use the trip as an opportunity to learn his ABCs about Africa. Shot on video, ABC Africa provides a walking tour of the Ugandan village of Masaka, where, despite sickness and poverty, life goes on. In fact, we're so used to seeing African children staring back at the camera, hungry and afraid, that we don't quite know what to make of the kids who compete for Kiarostami's attention, singing and dancing. Where's the suffering?
It's there, as when we watch a child who just died at an AIDS center get wrapped in a cardboard box, then hauled off on the back of a bicycle. But for the most part, Kiarostami chooses not to engage in Sally Struthers-like emotional appeals, if only because he finds the truth so much more complicated. Many of the (often elderly) women who look after Masaka's orphans have lost children and grandchildren of their own, for instance. And to join the program they have to sign up for a rather complicated financial arrangement that assures both them and the orphans a future. Yes, it takes a village, but sometimes, when its own survival is at stake, the village isn't enough. What's very clear from watching these kids and their surrogate moms, however, is that they don't need a handout. Like everybody everywhere, they need help helping themselves.
Thus does Kiarostami fulfill his social obligations to UWESO, but ABC Africa has more on its mind than making a public service announcement about needy children. The documentary also serves as a video diary of Kiarostami's journey into terrain that's quite different from his Iranian homeland. He chose to shoot in digital video rather than film because he wanted his presence to be as unobtrusive as possible, and although not everyone mugs for the camera, you sense that he was warmly welcomed to Masaka. Still, there's a hesitancy to the film that comes from the way Kiarostami goes with the flow, refusing to force anything. When the village's power routinely shuts down at midnight, Kiarostami and a crew member are stranded in the darkness, and so are we, for several minutes. Only the lightning of an approaching thunderstorm allows us to see our way to the next morning.
"Our only good fortune is that we humans can adapt to anything," Kiarostami says while striking matches to find out where he's at. ABC Africa may not have the poetic or philosophical resonance of some of his other films, but it strikes plenty of matches and adapts beautifully to the situation its director found himself in.
The film screens at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, March 14, at 4070 UW Vilas Hall