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ABC Africa


ABC Africa

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The language of images speaks with an effectiveness unmatched by statistics: The news that millions of African children die of AIDS each year can shock without hardening the loss into reality. But images can also be abused. Consider the famine-relief appeals that run in perpetuity on cable, spots that, however well-intentioned, reduce another African crisis to a string of horrific images that quickly desensitize their intended audience and drain the humanity from those they seek to help. Commissioned by the U.N.'s International Fund for Agricultural Development to cover the activities of the UWESO (Uganda Women's Efforts to Save Orphans), Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami finds plenty of horror in his documentary ABC Africa. But he also recognizes that the horror has no meaning without context, so beyond giving a human face to Uganda's crises, Kiarostami attempts to capture the actual place, a swirl of contradictions as vibrant and beautiful as it is troubled. Shot verité style using digital video, the film takes an unassuming approach that gives it much of its power. Newcomers to Africa, the director and cameraman Seyfolah Samadian don't attempt to disguise their inexperience. From the opening car ride (a Kiarostami trademark carried over from his narrative films), the film is compelled by their eagerness to explore their new surroundings, in spite of the unpleasantness of their ultimate task. Kiarostami was chosen for his extensive experience working with children, his near-exclusive subject for years, so it's unsurprising that ABC Africa features many shots of rural Ugandan youths mugging, smiling, and singing for the camera. It may seem inconsequential at first, but Kiarostami's later journey to a health clinic forced to use a disassembled cardboard box as a stretcher for a small corpse casts what's come before in a new light. Little but luck separates the living and the dead, and in Uganda, luck is in short supply. Meandering from one episode to another, Kiarostami further helps convey the scale of the country's ills. This crisis is ongoing, not a single, easily filmed dramatic event. Kiarostami never tries to hide the fact that he and his crew can only convey impressions, but ABC Africa finds impressions strong enough to last a lifetime.