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ABC Africa   C-

New Yorker Films

Year Released: 2001 (USA: 2002)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Cast: Abbas Kiarostami, Seyfolah Samadian.

Review by Eric Beltmann

Not many television curiosities are as seductively hilarious as The Osbournes, which might explain why so few people recognize that it's also one of the most troubling. What aggravates me is not the way the family appears to be grandstanding most of the time, but how MTV meticulously selects the most absurd clips from their mountains of footage, cruelly designing half-hour montages of humiliation. Ozzy and his family evidently don't much care that they are being exploited, but that hardly justifies MTV's decision to sell mockery-as-entertainment to its viewers on a weekly basis. When such disingenuous programming is passed off as reality -- a ruse that MTV clearly expects viewers to buy -- it raises complicated ethical questions: Are documentarians obligated to present their human subjects honestly, with tact, restraint, and civility? Is condescension an appropriate form of entertainment, even when the subject is a willing target? Does the business of entertainment, or journalism, have the right to squash privacy? To what degree does a camera interfere with and influence the environment it is recording? At what point does the camera's intrusion become immoral?

In other words, The Osbournes gets me thinking about the moral consequences of aiming a camera at real people. This relates to ABC Africa because Abbas Kiarostami's new documentary also gets me thinking about how filmmakers, and society in general, struggle with those ramifications. I don't think it's unreasonable to remark that in many ways America has fostered a culture of stimulation -- rather than, say, learning -- that is divorced from the idea that entertainment has a moral dimension, so it's no surprise that MTV has located success by pandering to an audience of voyeurs. What is more startling is that Kiarostami, Iran's most celebrated filmmaker, has tossed off a documentary also founded upon moral quicksand -- and that critics are letting him get away with it. Many critics have asked whether we should laugh at an aging rock star, but few have asked whether an acclaimed director should use the twin tragedies of AIDS and civil war in Africa as an excuse to explore his own interest in the limitations of the documentary form.

Because of disease and war, there are now 1.6 million orphans in Uganda, and ABC Africa ostensibly serves as Kiarostami's humanitarian response to that crisis. Asked by the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development to supervise a fundraising picture, Kiarostami traveled, admirably, with a small film crew to the Ugandan city of Masaka. Using cheap digital camcorders, they shot preliminary research for the project, but after screening the tapes, Kiarostami decided they contained enough quality footage to comprise the final film. Based on what we see in ABC Africa, he may have been correct, despite the fact that most of the picture's power seems achieved strictly through happenstance.

One of the most arresting images is of a pediatric nurse wrapping a corpse in a sheet, and then fashioning a coffin out of half a cardboard box; we understand that the other half must be saved for another child. The corpse is then shuttled away by a man on a bike. Where is the body taken? Nobody seems to know, and nobody seems to care -- including Kiarostami, whose style here is to simply observe what happens around him. In fact, much of the movie is made up of long, unbroken shots of children crowding the director, peering into his lens as they bounce along to the street's music.

These "scenes" are an admission, I think, that Kiarostami and his crew inevitably alter their environment, that most documentary footage is, on some level, artificial. They also signal Kiarostami's interest in leaving in what most directors leave out. For example, there's a very typical shot of a rugged, worn-out man slouching against a wall, exemplifying Uganda's destitution. However, Kiarostami also shows us how that shot came to be: After glimpsing Kiarostami's camera, the man grinned and hopped into place, instantly turning on his "haunted eyes." He is as much a performer as Sharon Osbourne; even in impoverished Uganda, the camera excites.

In a later scene, an entire town's electricity is shut off at midnight, unexpectedly stranding two of Kiarostami's crew members in total darkness. As they stumble to their rooms, they chat about how different Africa is from their native Iran, and throughout the entire conversation the screen remains black. It concludes with a blinding jolt of lightning that illuminates the African landscape, and the breathtaking image might serve as a fortuitous metaphor for how the eyes of Kiarostami and his crew have been opened to the realities of Uganda.

Such self-aware moments are undeniably fascinating, but they also indicate what's off beam about ABC Africa: While Kiarostami and his crew are being enlightened, their audience is left fumbling in the dark. As it is currently edited together, ABC Africa does a very poor job of communicating the knowledge its director gained during his visit. Its most compelling segment describes an organization, called Ugandan Women's Efforts to Save Orphans, that teaches local women how to plan for the future, but Kiarostami fails to notice that the group's optimistic efforts are his best story. Like much of the film, this section is rambling, discursive, and surprisingly shallow in its revelations. One gets the sense that after he arrived in Africa, Kiarostami became less interested in AIDS and orphans than in the workings of documentary filmmaking, as if his own cinematic concerns were infinitely more dramatic than the insolvency -- and resilience -- surrounding him.

Is there anything wrong with a documentarian impulsively shifting his focus? I don't think so -- in fact, such elasticity may yield profound fruit -- but when actual human suffering is underplayed in the process, I start thinking again about the same ethical questions raised by The Osbournes. I wouldn't say that Kiarostami takes advantage of his subjects the way MTV does, but I would argue that, perhaps inadvertently, he trivializes their circumstances. (Some of his juxtapositions are also dubious. He manages to weakly suggest that the Catholic Church, and its condemnation of family planning, is partly to blame for the spread of AIDS in Africa, since so many men refuse to use condoms.) In ABC Africa, death, disease, and politics feel incidental, mere backdrops for Kiarostami's formalistic inquiries. The result is an awkward, superficial travelogue about Iranians on a publicity excursion to Africa, providing no more insight into Uganda than a Sally Struthers heart-pull. All those smiling orphans in the streets, their experiences not nearly as well documented as Kiarostami's own, merit a more organized and attentive investigation.

Review published 05.13.2002.

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