Two Docs on Uganda

April 29, 2008

Still on the activist documentary, I recall two films on orphans in Uganda. They  number over two million because of AIDS and war, and we all know that cameras love tragedy.

The first film, ABC Africa, began when the International Fund for Agricultural Development invited Abbas Kiarostami to film in Uganda. They hoped to draw attention to UWESO, the Ugandan Women’s Efforts to Save Orphans. Kiarostami, the preeminent Iranian director, went in with video cameras to take some preparatory notes.  He so liked what he shot that he just used it.


He uses the video camera to meet people and play with kids, and so makes a breezy film that somehow grows in the mind after viewing.  It often shows poor streets and natural beauty shot from cars, and billboards for “Lifeguard” condoms.  In a hospital scene, it quietly glances at the dead.  The film’s centerpiece, however, shows nothing.  Six minutes of darkness, broken only by a match and lightning, let Kiarostami remind us that humans can adapt to anything.

Mostly the film sings. As soon as he arrives at the airport, Kiarostami films a man singing. Women and children sing in groups. Kiarostami intersperses reminders, not lectures, about the problem and UWESO’s solutions.  He also reminds us of our privileged viewpoint.  The film ends by following a white Austrian couple from hotel to airport with their adopted Ugandan child.  The complex situation evokes conflicted emotions, as they photograph this child in his homeland before taking him from it.  Kiarostami ends with a shot of clouds, subtly overlaid with children’s faces, as ephemeral as a video image, or a memory.


The second film, Invisible Children, began when some American wannabe filmmakers invited themselves to Sudan.  A high-school teacher described it to me as “Road Rules in Africa,” with neither irony nor horror.  When the filmmakers arrive in Uganda, they’re surprised that they can’t cross the desert to get to Sudan. Luckily there’s photogenic tragedy at hand. Locals describe the Invisible Children, fleeing the rebels army’s press gangs at night; the film’s money shot slowly reveals hundreds of children sleeping together in a safehouse. It works as spectacle of nameless bodies, a stand-in for the carnage they never got to film in Sudan.


The film is just the beginning.  Having looked with classic American innocence, the filmmaker’s very American solution should not surprise. They established a business.  Free screenings at high schools and colleges lead to events where students sleep out at night, emulating the children. It gives an experience film cannot, and prepares viewers to act, not watch.  They sell trinkets made by the children and actively solicit donations.  Fortunately, they have also established schools and scholarships, hopefully a more sustainable solution with long-term benefits.

One could be forgiven thinking it’s all crass, given the commercials on the DVD. They are an NPO, though, and seem to be doing good in the world.  Most films struggle to get seen, much less build schools. Fault the distribution networks of theaters and television, which Invisible Children bypassed entirely. It succeeds by appealing to its viewers’ naïveté.  It also does nothing to disabuse them of it, just their money.  Hopefully, the film and organization render themselves irrelevant by solving the problem.  ABC Africa lacks a structure to do that, but it is also not the film IFAD envisioned.  It’s Kiarostami’s film, and I can imagine watching it for a host of reasons ten, twenty, even fifty years from now.

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