'Family Portrait in Black and White': Mixed Race Children in Ukraine

In not resolving conflicts, Family Portrait in Black and White is as fearless and complex and difficult as the family it represents.

Family Portrait in Black and White

Director: Julia Ivanova
Cast: Olga Nenya, Kiril, Roman, Maxim, Sashka, Andrey, Anya
Rated: PG
Studio: Interfilm Productions, ITVS
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-07-13 (Limited release)

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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