Cannes Relief Fund

An education in humanity: Kiarostami's "ABC Africa"

An education in humanity: Kiarostami's "ABC Africa"

Cannes, France--

THE LONGSTANDING CANNES argument in favor of including the synthetic Hollywood likes of Moulin Rouge--not to mention giving the lifetime achievement award this year to, ahem, Melanie Griffith--is that such gestures help subsidize the more artistically adventurous fare from countries whose film industries aren't powerful enough to warrant their own WTO debates. And given the diverse roster of movies screening in and out of competition for festival awards in 2001, the logic does appear sound.

In addition to the impressive collection of new work by a bevy of world-cinema auteurs including Claire Denis, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Tsai Ming-liang, Jacques Rivette, Abel Ferrara, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Jean-Luc Godard, among others, there are films about topics that don't generally get addressed at the local multiplex, or even the local arthouse. The oppression of women in Afghanistan, the minute struggles of an Argentinean woodcutter, and the effects of a Japanese religious cult massacre are all being explored in depth here--along with the particular glitter of Nicole Kidman's truly stunning diamond bracelet. Vive la difference, as the French would say. Indeed, at what other festival could you see Shrek in the morning (or sleep in, as you prefer), a Bosnian-war drama in the afternoon, and le nouveau Todd Solondz at night?

Diversity aside, good business will occasionally allow for good deeds, and no film could make the point more strongly than ABC Africa, a documentary directed in typically spare style by Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry). The film begins with a written request for help seen spilling out of the director's fax machine: The United Nations' International Fund for Agricultural Development is inviting Kiarostami (who received a UN award in 1997 for his humanitarian fictions) to document the progress of the Uganda Women's Effort to Save Orphans, thereby calling attention to its struggles on behalf of the 1.5 million Ugandan children orphaned by war and AIDS. Accepting the challenge, Kiarostami approaches his ten days of shooting in Kampala from a compassionate rather than an investigative angle--which, in its way, is no less political. Displaying the same concern for the inner lives of kids as in his narrative film Where Is the Friend's House? the director here traverses the vast gulf between children's play and their death--the latter represented most chillingly through the image of a young Ugandan AIDS victim being placed in a makeshift cardboard coffin and driven away on the back of a bicycle.

Still, the film hardly amounts to a visual catalog of Ugandan misfortune. Stylistically speaking, much of this beautiful, vibrant work reflects the basic truth that waving a camcorder among children in rural portions of Africa will inspire no small amount of curiosity--and mugging for the camera. Objectivity, such as it can ever exist in a documentary, simply isn't an option here. Perhaps for that reason, Kiarostami regularly turns the cameras on himself and his tiny crew. Particularly in the context of Uganda's widespread poverty, one unforgettable scene of the filmmakers fumbling toward their hotel rooms after a late-night power blackout makes it clear that light--and, by extension, cinema--is a privilege. Thus the question for the world's filmmakers ought to be, but too seldom is: What to do with that privilege?

It's a question that has particular importance for Kiarostami, who, though he's scarcely written about at length in the U.S., is a hugely acclaimed filmmaker with a devoted worldwide audience. At Cannes members of that audience would likely have packed screening rooms to see a film of the director practicing choral recitations for three hours--which, given his celebrity as an auteur, would have been a film well within his means to do. And this dynamic makes the issue of what the artist will actually choose to create all the more vital. In some ways ABC Africa--which rather pointedly includes scenes of an Austrian couple with their adopted Ugandan child, promoting human fellowship where Moulin Rouge promotes mass consumption--is a film whose message is simply to remind us of the power of any individual choice, including the choice to do nothing.

Just as Cannes may trade on a single wave from Uma Thurman to her fans in order to allow the presence of that movie about the struggles of an Argentinean woodcutter, so Kiarostami has traded on his fame to serve as nearly the sole conscience of this year's festival. For a reporter in Cannes assigned to cover the festival's goings-on from top to bottom, Kiarostami's own urgent dispatch makes the notion of apportioning space to, say, New Line's 20-minute promo reel of completed footage from the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, seem aptly soulless, even obscene.