The AIDS epidemic in Africa is a subject of enormous importance, which makes Abbas Kiarostami’s film dealing with it doubly frustrating. “ABC Africa” is ostensibly about the way in which the international community is responding to the disaster in Uganda, but the Iranian director’s take on the subject is so muddled, repetitive and ragged that it says far less about the horrifying historical reality than about the filmmaker’s characteristic style, one that’s so resolutely spontaneous and elliptical that it results in a random series of images rather than a coherent analysis of the problem. Much of the running-time is devoted to scenes of AIDS orphans singing, and to a depiction of programs designed to develop widows’ economic ability to support their children. These are obviously designed to emphasize the possibility of hope, and even of joy, in the midst of despair; but we get the point fast, and don’t need it to be endlessly reiterated. There’s very little in the way of direct explanation, apart from a snatch of a letter at the beginning describing Iranian participation in the aid program and two laborious (but still barely comprehensible) descriptions of the effort to give the women some sense of financial stability.
To be fair, there are occasional moments of power and insight here. The most intense is certainly a visit to a clinic, presented with startling simplicity and ending in the removal of a corpse, wrapped in paper, on a bicycle. On the other hand, some sequences are merely mystifying. At one point the screen goes black for a couple of minutes when the electricity is shut off at a hotel at midnight and we follow a couple of the cameramen stumbling through dark corridors back to their rooms, mouthing inanities along the way. One hopes that this irritating episode is intended to be something more than a bland reference to the ignorance which both feeds the epidemic and infects our ability to confront it; but that would probably be too optimistic an attitude.
Technically “ABC Africa” is decidedly rudimentary, with cinematography that’s at best workmanlike and editing that’s–to put it mildly–sloppy. The film is a mess–truly sad in view of the treatment this important subject deserves.