Julia Ivanova’s Family Portrait in Black and White has a quiet, deceptive simplicity that recalls the films of the Maysles brothers. Ivanova follows Olga Nenya, a formidable-looking middle-aged woman raising 23 foster children alone in a small Ukrainian village. The children, who vary in age from about five to 16, are mostly the biracial offspring of visiting African students and Ukrainian women, which makes them outcasts in a culture that sees non-Caucasians as inferiors who pose danger to Ukraine’s unsullied whiteness. Olga makes a point of taking in the undesirables, teaching them discipline while loving them, conditionally, as if they were her own.
For a while, the film is an evocative series of everyday moments that could be taking place in a ramshackle house full of kids anywhere in the world. The children act up, as is their wont, and Olga corrects them in an effort to maintain authority and structure. Olga assigns chores, ensures they pay attention to their schooling, and tends to injuries. One of her children must leave home to attend the Ukrainian equivalent of a special-ed school, and the film follows Olga as she visits him, allowing the child to wrap his arms around her as he actively attempts to curtail her inevitable departure. And two of the children—one white, one black—would appear to be in love.
But Olga’s toughness, largely admirable, also reveals an inflexibility that leads her to permanently cut off children who ideologically defy her. One of her children yearns to escape to Italy, while another seeks further education at a university. For these desires they’re banned from Olga’s household, with the remaining children encouraged to shun them. For Olga, it’s a literal case of “my way or the highway.”
Ivanova, a Canadian filmmaker, doesn’t judge Olga; she refuses to see her through the eyes of a presumably better-off first-world citizen. Olga is understood to be a woman informed by a communist culture that values collective duty over individual destiny, and we’re allowed to understand, instinctively, that it’s this considerable will that also emboldens Olga to risk potential danger to raise children that society at large holds in contempt. Ivanova is also clearly aware of the irony inherent in the actions of this rebellious person who tries to squash her children’s rebellion, which is, of course, the classic conflict between parent and child. Olga is often infuriating, but she’s also a tough broad who could legitimately be called a hero, and Family Portrait in Black and White is a beautiful, often challenging, examination of the complexities and contradictions of that heroism.