Olga Nenya’s children are on their way to the river, where they spend hot afternoons in Sumy, a small town in northeast Ukraine. As they walk, they also run a gamut, watching out for trouble. This comes in the form of harassment and taunts tossed their way by kids and even adults they see on the sidewalk. Some of their neighbors watch the children pass in silence, like the two young men who stop work and lean on their shovels. Others glance over as they walk and still others deliberately look away. Still, the children are aware of where they are and who’s around them. “Arabs!” notes Sashka, a dark-skinned boy walking with his arm over the shoulder of his smaller, blond brother Sergey. He takes his arm away and suggests they change the topic until they pass. The camera pauses as they do, watching the two young men seated on a bench, watching the boys.
By the time Sashka, Sergey, and their siblings arrive at the river, they look almost as if they’ve forgotten their walk, splashing in the water, laughing and teasing one another. But they haven’t, you learn soon enough in Family Portrait in Black and White. They can’t. They’re grateful for the home provided by Olga, who’s got four children of her own and another 23 foster children, 16 of whom are mixed-race. She sees in these children, she says, both a special need and also a special reward. When requests for adoption come from other foster parents—say, families in France where children from the Ukraine often spend their summers—she refuses, insisting the kids are hers until they reach the age of 18 and can make their own (legal) decisions.
Olga’s distrust of the “strangers” who look after the children over several summers—filmmaker Julia Ivanova shot over three years—seems earned, given the daily abuse she sees affecting her foster children. She’s famous locally, apparently, as well as the target of spot inspections by state officials (the state helps t support the household financially), who cite her for using plastic dishes or for not “raising [the children] right.” She defends herself by going on offense: “You help me get me a psychologist,” she says, “A tutor.”
Her concerns are embodied by a couple of children whom the film spotlights. One boy, Roman, loves soccer but falls behind at school. The state decides he should be sent to a school for children with learning disabilities, even though, the headmaster says, Roman doesn’t seem disabled to her. Rather, she asserts, her posture proper, “I think his personality is to blame,” she says, “He inherited a temperament from his biological parents.” As she adds, “It’s difficult for him to focus, to maintain concentration,” the film cuts to a shot of Roman, his head bent over an embroidery he’s working on in front of Olga, hoping to show her just how industrious he is, hoping to convince her to bring him home from the school.
The edit makes a point the film doesn’t speak out loud, that the kids are assessed and misjudged and categorized for all kinds of reasons that have little to do with their “personalities.” As the film repeats this strategy of juxtaposition—image and assessment—you might come gradually to question your own assumptions. This is not to say Family Portrait in Black and White doesn’t make its arguments obviously: it begins by setting a context for Olga’s unusual family, with shots of skinheads marching and pontificating (“We must secure the existence of the white race for the future of white children”) and a series of person-on-the-street interviews that offer explicitly disturbing views: a man makes a case against mixed race children based on the deadly effects of mixing “different types of blood… in a transfusion” and a woman sniffs, “I feel sorry for black children, they are outsiders.”
But even as the case against racists seems easy to make, the film offers more complicated analyses of other prejudices and fears, again, inviting you to think about your own. Some of these are represented in the children’s responses to cruelties, as when a camera watches over a couple of kids’ shoulders as they watch a particularly nasty neighbor stumble about, drunk in his yard. And some are left to your imagination, as during that instance when the kids walk past the apparent “Arabs” on the bench, and it’s quite unclear what they might be thinking, though you understand the children’s guess as to what their gazes mean.
Most troubling is the set of complications Olga herself embodies. Surely, her self-appointed mission is admirable: she means to salvage the children’s lives, to nurture and love them, to combat Ukrainian racism per se. But she brings her own assumptions to the project, for instance her belief that the state makes the right decision in sending Roman to the disabilities school, and leaving him there, despite his reports to her that he’s being abused (reports the film can’t confirm visually, but which surely sound like they warrant investigation). She also emerges from a particular historical and cultural moment. So, when she resists letting the kids go to adoptive families in France, calling describes them “diamonds” that are important to the nation of Ukraine, it appears she’s rationalizing her love for them, her desire to keep them with her.
In part, this idea arises when you see Maxim with the French gay couple who dote on him, as well as his tears when it comes time to return to Ukraine. You also see conflict in Olga herself, as when she makes the reference to “diamonds,” and the film cuts to a brief montage of the children at work around the house, scrubbing floors and doing laundry.
The juxtaposition reinforces an estimation voiced by one of her older foster children, the teenaged Kiril. Bright, studious, with his eye on university studies and an escape from the poverty where he’s grown up, he’s upset throughout the film that she wants him to attend a school close to home, that she refuses to let him make decisions about his future. “If you think about it,” he observes, “Our family resembles a totalitarian Soviet regime. It’s like a herd. Perhaps this comparison is rude, but it’s accurate.” Images of the kids as a group support his characterization. “None of mom’s older children are university-educated,” he worries, “Their values in life are discipline and constant physical labor.”
On one level, Kiril’s frustrations are typical of other teenagers’. On another, however, they’re particular to his family, to his mother’s efforts, however admirable, and to the changing cultural environment he sees around him. The the film cuts from Kiril to Olga hard at work on tomato sauce, determined that her judgment is correct, unable or unwilling to compromise with her son.
Even as Family Portrait in Black and White reveals such sore spots, it doesn’t resolve them. In this, the film is remarkable, as fearless and complex and difficult as the family it represents.