Year Released: 2001
Distributor: New Yorker Films
Running Time: 84 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG-13
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: I Am Because We Are, Angels in the Dust, The Orphans of Nklanda, State of Denial, Sari’s Mother, Tapestries of Hope
-Three languages are spoken in this documentary. It’s mostly in English, but there are multiple conversations in Luganda and Persian/Farsi.
-Most of the documentary takes place in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala. There are over 1.6 million people living there. The consulting firm Mercer considered it to be the best city to live in East Africa and outranked Kampala over Nairobi, Kenya, and Kigali, Rwanda. Some people associated with that city include boxer John Mugabi, model Aamito Lagum, NFL player Wasswa Serwanga, indie pro wrestler Nsereko, and chess player Phiona Mutesi who was the main subject in Queen of Katwe.
-Abbas Kiarostami collected 20 hours of footage before editing it down to less than an hour and a half. Not only that, this is the first Kiarostami film to be filmed outside of his home country of Iran.
Here is the anniversary of my Black Film Project for Iridium Eye Reviews. Since it’s Black History Month in America, I want to focus on movies by Black directors or focusing on aspects of the African Diaspora at large. It does feel a bit strange that I’m kicking things off with an Abbas Kiarostami project, but it still fits in the concept since this takes place in Uganda. This would make it the second review I’ve covered involving that East African country after watching the wacky dark comedy/action movie Who Killed Captain Alex? for this blog. Don’t worry, this one is a documentary and a lot more serious than the Wakaliwood project. This is also a bit of a different thing from other Kiarostami reviews because I’m covering his documentary portfolio instead of his narrative or experimental films.
Will this be a great insight into Ugandan culture or will this be an exercise in exploitation?
ABC Africa is a project by Abbas Kiarostami that was commissioned by an unlikely place. The United Nations inform this Iranian director about a village in the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda by the Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans (UWESO). As the title suggests, several Ugandan women made a community for orphaned children, but the emphasis is on those who lost families due to HIV or AIDS. They feed, clothe, and teach the children while also offering loans to low-income families in the area to help get them on their feet. Kiarostami and his team take the job to film the village with the purpose of making a full-length film with just a handheld digital camera. He captures life in that part of Uganda with the children living life, learning about the community, and covering the grave moments of those hospitalized as well as fighting for their lives during their ten days of filming.
I had never seen Kiarostami’s documentary films before despite thinking Close-Up was one when I first watched it years ago, but his fingerprints are still over it. The long takes, naturalistic settings, and slice-of-life aspects are definitely there despite being a documentary, but I’m not complaining about it. It’s interesting how there aren’t that many narrations besides the first scene involving the UN letter or with his Ugandan guide translating some of the dialogue from the locals. I did have my concerns that ABC Africa going into tragedy porn territories with HIV and AIDS being major talking points. Yes, there are morbid discussions and there is a hospital scene, but there are some moments of levity around. The most obvious example involves the children swarming around the camera with excited curiosity as well and acting silly, some locals living life despite their conditions, outdoor classes, or people managing their businesses in town. There were some brief scenes of the cityscape of Kampala, some fancy hotels, and a story involving an adoptive couple with a child they got custody of. Kiarostami’s understated take to let the scenes speak for themselves. The mission of UWESO is certainly commendable by teaching important life skills and financial literacy for the people to be self-sufficient. I think that’s a great idea to help those who were afflicted and lost families. The stories from some of the women were powerful in how they wanted to improve lives given all the tragedies they went through. There were some positives to be shown with this documentary that I will acknowledge.
ABC Africa isn’t an easy film despite the remedial title. This was made in the early 00s, but I’m not so concerned about the obvious aged elements with the technology and fashion. Like some of Kiarostami’s worst moments, the slice-of-life elements can meander at times even if it was a documentary. I wasn’t a fan of the dialogue between the director and one of his crewmates on a jet-black screen. Both of them were talking about how the electricity gets cut off after midnight (hence the blackness of the screen), but the conversation got very patronizing about how the Ugandans are used to not having all these luxuries. Guys, you’re both from Iran, so I REALLY wouldn’t be talking if I were you. Abbas Kiarostami should seriously know better especially given how he’s made films that depict poverty in his home country. The adopted couple were from Austria (does anyone see where I’m going with this?) and I definitely got low-key white savior vibes when they talk about adopting that baby Ugandan girl. Most of the conversations were neutral, there was definitely talk about how they’re making sure the child experiences a quality life and education back in their home country. I know the child was orphaned and came from a tough life, but not everything in Uganda much less Africa is poverty tourism, you know. Shoot, I’ve even seen travel vlogs involving that country and videos showing luxury houses that are on par as well as exceeding numerous houses in Austria, America, or other places in the West. The biggest thing that rubbed me the wrong way was that I felt like I was watching a UNICEF commercial more than half the time which is not a compliment from me even going back to my first-ever review of Theeb. There were flies everywhere including one disgusting scene of a swarm of them on a piece of meat. The hospital scene was meant to be sordid, but it felt like exploitation to me especially with the malnourished and agonized children in these ramshackle cribs. This got to poverty porn at greater depths than The Trader (Sovdagari) at its worst moments and I’m not going to repeat why that Georgian documentary is less exploited than this work. I can’t fault UWESO for their work, but I had an issue with them saying they don’t have men living in those communes due to HIV/AIDS transmissions. I hate to be that guy when it comes to that logic, but transmissions can be a two-way street regardless of gender. This also brings the notion that any man would sexually assault a woman and/or child which is a horrible assumption. I know some men visit like musicians or local business people occasionally, but that was still an insulting insinuation. Also, what will become of the boys living in this community if they have no fathers or at minimum positive father figures? I really don’t want to read into this as some case of “Black men ain’t spit” sort of undertones, but I can’t un-see that after dealing with so much propaganda in the Western mainstream media in subtle or overt ways. I don’t want to bash this organization because they’re doing some good things, but I’d be lying if they said they were perfect.
This was the worst Kiarostami project I’ve seen so far and I wish I had a better start for my Black film theme for February. I did like the healthy mix between the levity and severity of the film because this could’ve easily been tragedy non-stop. The natural filming was nice even if it was made with a dated camera. With that said, I got uncomfortable with the poverty exhibition and first-world nose-turning (Kiarostami’s nationality notwithstanding) with the presentation going on. ABC Africa was intriguing for half the time, but the other half comes off as exploitation in my eyes.
Adjustable Point System:
-Add 1-3 points if you like Abbas Kiarostami’s movies
-Add 1 point if you like slice-of-life presentations of documentaries.
-Subtract 1-2 points if you’re bothered by showing the most destitute parts of Africa.
-Subtract 1-2 points if the concepts of HIV/AIDS make you uncomfortable.
-Good balance of lighthearted and serious moments
-Well-done natural filmmaking
-UWESO has a commendable mission for the community
-Poverty porn elements get rampant
-White savior and first-world condescending attitudes
-Propaganda fodder with HIV/AIDS scenes
Final Score: 5/10 points
Content Advisory: Teens and up. There aren’t many offensive things, but I wouldn’t recommend ABC Africa for kids. There’s partial nudity and most of that involves women breastfeeding children. The topics of the former civil war are brought up and many people have lost family members. One scene has a body carted off which is strongly implied to be dead. HIV and AIDS are discussed. You see some patients and some of the sickly are quite gaunt and disfigured at times.
All photos are property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. ABC Africa is property of New Yorker Films. The DVD cover is from Amazon and is property of New Yorker Films.
ABC Africa Review