A nimble, sharp-eyed examination of totalitarian regimes, Family Portrait in Black and White is the documentary story of an extended Ukrainian family – Olga Nenya and her 17 mostly mixed-race foster children.
That’s not a good circumstance in Sumy, a Boraty village where white supremacy rallies, drunkenness and goat herding would seem the town’s leading activities. There, Nenya, a middle-aged bulldozer in flowered smocks, raises and frets over her many children, boils beets and potatoes by the barrel, and occasionally scares away snooping social workers.
Family Portrait in Black and White refers to the Nenya children’s constant challenge – brown-black kids living in a virulently racist society. But it is also a commentary on big-hearted “Mama” Nenya’s simplistic worldview. At one point the deeply caring, domineering matriarch laments the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Elsewhere, she acknowledges growing sad when kids get older. “I like to know 100 per cent of what they do,” she says.
Mama loves her children as long as they do what they’re told, we come to understand. She forbids one from playing soccer. Another wants to pursue a career in the arts. “Music doesn’t put food on the table,” Mama says.
We later see the teenager, Kiril, playing piano in the house, whistling happily.
“No whistling in the house,” Mama says.
“I have to whistle.”
“Then get out.”
Canadian filmmaker Julia Ivanova, in a rare formal intrusion on the Nenya family life, asks the mother why she never acknowledges her children’s visits to other countries. (Most of the kids regularly visit families elsewhere in Europe as part of an exchange program.)
“Do they not have two families?” the filmmaker suggests.
“A baby bird should only have one nest,” is Mama’s swift reply.
Filmed over two years, Family Portrait in Black and White is thoughtfully assembled and composed. Though only 85 minutes, the film captures an entire, bewilderingly extended family and way of life inside a sturdy frame.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Family Portrait in Black and White
- Directed by Julia Ivanova
- Featuring Olga Nenya and Kiril Nenya
- Classification: 14A
- 3 stars