Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Meet a Russian throwback: Julia Ivanova's FAMILY PORTRAIT IN BLACK AND WHITE

Family. What a loaded word. And how varied are the situations used to cover that word. One of the odder and more problematic families you're likely to meet this -- maybe any -- year can be found in the new documentary from Russo-Canadian filmmaker Julia Ivanova, who wrote, directed, shot and edited FAMILY PORTRAIT IN BLACK AND WHITE (her brother Boris Ivanov produced it). In it we meet Olga Nenya, a middle-aged woman who lives in the Ukraine and has 27 children, only four of whom (all now adults) are hers biologically. The other 23 have been adopted over the years, and of those, 16 are bi-racial -- in a country that is 99.9% white. (The hearts of many of those 99.9, however, if we can believe what comes from their foul mouths, are black as pitch.)

Mrs. Nenya's heart may not be so lily-white, either. One of the strengths of this most interesting and thought-provoking documentary is that, while never overtly pushing or prying, it still manages to get beneath the skin of its protagonists, including Nenya and a number of her children. Filmed over a three-year period during which the filmmaker, shown at right, and her crew spent two months in 2008, two more months in 2009 and a final month in 2010 with their subjects, because of this wide space of time, we are able to see the children grow and mature, problems crop up and then sort themselves out (or not) and attitudes change.

The film begins on a ugly note; footage of the cretinous slobberings of a group of skinheads (eastern Europe is notoriously racist). These people appear again during the movie and what they say about what they do (and how the local police -- some of them, anyway -- approve of this) is horrible, certainly terrifying for any person of color stuck in this country. Yet Olga (shown above, back row, center, as well as three photos below) and her crew of kids seem safe enough -- if they stick to the "plantation," as it were.

It's on this plantation that most of the problems arise. The kids, white and colored get along with each other quite well; it's with Olga, as the children grow and mature, that divisions crack the happy facade. Kiril, the oldest boy (above) -- intelligent and surprisingly autonomous -- wants to pursue a school for and a career in arts and music. Olga has other ideas. The results of their clash has consequences intended and not.

Sergey (above, right) a white child, comes from bad foster parents, and his words of praise for Olga strike home as both truthful and deeply felt. "My other foster mom was unfair. She ate meat and potatoes, while we had overcooked pasta with sugar. This mom eats what we eat!"

Some children, Andrey and Maxim are two such, have learning disabilities and/or anger management problems and so must go to special schools or be placed for a time in a psychiatric hospital. To see Andrey sobbing because mom must leave him is heartbreaking. Later, to hear him talk about the "treatment" they gave him at the hospital is more like horrifying.

For whatever reason, we hear about and get to know more of the boys than the girls, though we do see plenty of the girls (as in the shot above). Their stories may not have seemed as forceful or telling as that of the boys, or perhaps the filmmakers do not see them in as much danger from crazy white Ukrainian "machismo" as are the males.

What we do see, however, are some of the adoptive Italian families with whom the kids spend a part of their summer each year and who want to permanently adopt these children. Maxim is clearly in love with his adoptive Italian father (above) and grand-dad (below) but as he is only nine, Olga will not let him be adopted to Italy. She calls these Italians "strangers," but is asked how they can still be considered strangers after several summers of parenting. (This seems to be one of the only times the filmmaker intrudes with a question or objection.)

Eighteen-year-old Anya (shown below with her adoptive Italian family) is happy to leave permanently for Italy, which Olga sees as a betrayal. But the girl is of age, so it becomes her choice, and she makes it. And yet, on balance, I can't imagine that most viewers will not find Olga and her work worthwhile and helpful to the kids, and to the country she and they occupy.

Young Kiril hits it on the nose, I think, when he tells the filmmakers, "Our family resembles a totalitarian, Soviet regime. And that's how our mother likes it." Olga is a throwback to a former time, the period in which she herself grew up and which, on some level, she clearly identifies with -- and misses.

Family Portrait in Black and White -- 85 minutes from First Pond Entertainment -- opens this Friday, July 13, in New York City at the AMC Empire 25, with a limited national release to follow.


Anonymous said...

I'm sure the "I-TALIAN" men sexually abuses those kids.

James van Maanen said...

I hope not, Anonymous. I'd prefer to imagine that the kids are loved and taken care of.