Family Portrait in Black and White


There’s nothing remotely “postracial” about the Ukraine depicted in Family Portrait in Black and White, Julia Ivanova’s documentary about divorced, middle-age, white Ukrainian mom Olga Nenya, whose brood of 27 includes 20 foster kids, most the offspring of white Ukrainian women and African immigrant students. In Ukraine, there remains a serious social stigma on racial intermingling and the children who result. Ivanova captures a group of skinheads’ boast of beating immigrants as cops watch but also, painstakingly, the turbulence within and without Nenya’s iron-fist-ruled household. As the film moves through time, and some normal teen rebellion among her children is spiked with questions and issues of identity, both Nenya’s motives and affections become murkier. One of her foster sons labels her “Stalin,” and the film illustrates that though he’s not simply indulging teen hyperbole (Nenya repeatedly demonstrates that she runs her home on the totalitarian model), he is simplifying the truth revealed in Nenya’s exchanges with one of her foster sons—an achingly sweet kid—whose emotional problems result in the state placing him in a home for the developmentally challenged, where he suffers Dickensian abuse. But the film is flawed on a basic level. Many of the children shown aren’t named, some intriguingly suggestive moments between one of Nenya’s biracial foster daughters and a white neighbor boy are quickly brushed over, and the film-festival cut had rich subplots (about Nenya’s trifling elder biological son; the fate of one of the African fathers) that have been excised for this theatrical run. The film’s emotional and psychological textures suffer for those losses, but Family is still riveting viewing. Ernest Hardy