A movie of seemingly limpid transparency and tremendous, understated compassion, "ABC Africa" is director Abbas Kiarostami's testament to the suffering and perseverance of the people of Uganda. It's a poetic film on a harrowing subject: the current woes of a country that survived one of the world's bloodiest and most psychopathic dictators, Idi Amin, but now reels under the ravages of the African AIDS epidemic.
Darkness and grief are the parameters here, yet Kiarostami's film is, in a seeming paradox, free and exuberant. It's full of sunshine, images of joy and the happy faces of smiling children running after the camera and posing for it.
It is the orphans who are Kiarostami's main concern, fittingly so for a director who began his career making documentaries -- some now considered classics -- for Iran's Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. Summoned to Uganda by another agency, the UN's International Fund for Agricultural Development, Kiarostami was asked to shoot a documentary, in whatever style he chose, about the children's plight and the efforts of UWESO. His response was typical. He has made, in super-realistic "diary" style, a digital video chronicle of his journey there, beginning with a shot of the Fax from the UN, requesting his participation, and continuing with his arrival at a Ugandan airport with a skeleton crew of camera and sound people.
Kiarostami records his meetings with Ugandan relief workers, who fill us in on the catastrophe. Then, often using what has become the signature shot of most of his recent films -- a frame of a driver or rider against a moving car window -- he records the experience of driving through Uganda, discovering its damaged world.
He takes us into the villages. Simply, without extraneous commentary, he shows us not the charnel house we might have visualized from the statistics, but a country bubbling with energy and high spirits. Only occasionally is there an obviously tragic image, as in one devastating view of a child's corpse in a cardboard box thrust onto a bicycle. But we realize always the country's savage plight and the heroic efforts of its women. The whole movie pivots on that poignant contradiction: great collective sorrow and snatches of individual, childlike joy.
The key scene in "ABC Africa" may infuriate (misguided) detractors of Kiarostami's minimalist style. It's a long sequence where lights go out during a blackout and Kiarostami and his crew keep shooting in the darkness, recording their conversation in a pitch black sporadically illumined by light flashes. But, as always, Kiarostami has a poetic/social point. He wants us to experience the terror many Ugandans may feel in the night, filled with the unknown -- and with mosquitoes that may carry and transmit yet another sickness: malaria.
The title "ABC Africa" refers to a T-shirt worn by a little Ugandan child, adopted by a kind young German couple who eventually take him on a plane back to their home. Like the nationwide efforts of UWESO, this is one of those light flashes in darkness. We last see the child in another of what seems the Kiarostami signature shot, posed before a window against a passing landscape. But this time, we are inside an airplane, lifting up from the land, suddenly surrounded by clouds and open sky: a beautiful climax for a lovely, heart-stirring film.
3 1/2 stars
Directed, written and edited by Abbas Kiarostami; photographed by Seifollah Samadian; assistant editors Mohammed Razdasht, Sahand Samadian; Sound M. Reza Delpak; music by Babatunde Olatunji, others; project coordinator Ramin Rafirasme; produced by Kiarostami, Marin Karmitz. A New Yorker Films release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:24. (English and Farsi, subtitled) No MPAA rating (family, with caution for descriptions of AIDS devastation and human suffering).
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.