Isn’t Kiarostami just enlisting the image of the Other for an aesthetic exercise?
To any seasoned set of eyes, Abbas Kiarostami’s ABC Africa (2001) appears almost immediately suspect. There’s that title, first of all. Apparently taken from the letters embroidered on an infant subject’s shirt, “ABC Africa” suggests a lesson tailored for the same, a continent reduced to its most elemental, easily understood basics. Therein lies the second issue: the queasy pretense of reducing sub-Saharan Africa’s 800 million ethnically diverse people to a common 83-minute essence. It’s a classic fumble of credulous do-gooders—slyly savaged by the great lefty blog Africa Is a Country—and Kiarostami doesn’t overburden himself correcting it over the course of his elegant yet laconic digital video documentary.
Instead, he doggedly breaks the fourth wall. A ringing phone plays over the title, and the very first shot shows an incoming fax from the Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans (UWESO), its text read aloud by an offscreen narrator, commissioning Kiarostami to come document the group’s efforts to care for children orphaned by an HIV/AIDS epidemic and ongoing civil war in the Kampala region. The moment calls to mind the polarizing final moments of Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (1997), which make a switch from film to video and pull back to show the film’s crew, the director holding court among them. Blunt self-reflexivity also has a long history in the documentary tradition. Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin famously turned the camera on themselves and their process at the end of Chronicle of a Summer (1961), ostensibly to demystify the ethnographic gaze.
The risk, then, is overcompensation: at what point does the ethnographer’s subject become secondary to the ethnographer himself? The standard gripe for Kiarostami’s detractors has always been that his radically elliptical style constituted little more than solemn self-indulgence. ABC Africa probably didn’t change their minds. If anything, the fact that the film plays as more of a travel diary than a portrait of a people in crisis only amplifies its navel-gazing qualities.
According to the director, the essayistic format was not planned. The footage he and collaborator Seifollah Samadian took on their camcorders during their original visit were meant to be notes for planning the final project, for which they would return with a full crew and shoot on 35mm. Upon viewing what they had shot back in Iran, however, Kiarostami decided to use it for the film instead.
The final product is likely far from the kind of highly legible prognostication UWESO was hoping for. Certainly, some of it’s pretty straightforward. Two reps from the organization give exposition at multiple points about the education and aid services they provide for Uganda’s overextended ersatz mothers, many of them caring for as many as 20 orphaned youngsters singlehandedly. There are also some perfectly understated passages of anthropological interest, as when Kiarostami’s camera captures the Catholic missionary presence and their predictably medieval solutions to the AIDS crisis, including defacing condom advertisements and posting signs proclaiming, “Virginity is the best protection against HIV/AIDs.”
But much more of the film is given over to roving camcorder footage of markets and village squares populated by crowds of curious, mirthful kids and some adults—some perplexed, a few covering their faces, but most of them happy to ham it up for the camera. As Mathew Abbott observes in his excellent “Senses of Cinema” essay on the film, ABC Africa is nothing if not proof-positive of the long-held film studies axiom that the very presence of a camera, and the shifts it prompts in its subjects’ behavior, makes capturing objective reality impossible. While it’s easy to take for granted a kind of mundane Bazinian realism in the age of Snapchat, replete with returned gazes and 360 degrees of mobility, ABC Africa is nevertheless often mesmerizing and, its low resolution notwithstanding, quite beautiful. Under the guidance of Kiarostami’s eye, lyricism sprouts like fractals from the contingencies of everyday life in the film’s rural Uganda.
Suspicion returns: isn’t Kiarostami just enlisting the image of the Other for an aesthetic exercise? Perhaps, and yet ABC Africa is, in its by turns maddening and life-affirming obliqueness, at least a far more provocative exercise than a widescreen meditation on Uganda’s tragic beauty—the sort of middlebrow claptrap well-meaning NGOs extruded by the yard in the 1990s—would have been. In this way, it comes to resemble another lesser-known documentary entry of a beloved auteur’s oeuvre: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Notes Towards an African Orestes (1970), which chronicled the Italian renegade’s abortive efforts to stage Aeschylus’ drama in Uganda and Tanzania. That fascinating film was ultimately about the impossibility of “capturing” Africa on an outsider’s terms, and so too, in a way, is ABC Africa.