Sunday, May 8, 2011

Family Portrait in Black and White

Family Portrait in Black and White opens in the Ukraine with scenes of laughing children playing together under the care of the saintly Olga Nenya, a foster mother taking care of 23 such orphaned children. Sixteen of them  are biracial,  and Olga's dedication is even more impressive when set against the malevolent, open racism in the town and the active skinheads who beat up and kill black people, seemingly with little intervention from the police.  

The children's lives are highly structured: strict rules and plenty of household tasks.  Life is modest - the council thinks the house should be condemned - but we see lots of caring and hugs between the children and their foster mother, whom they consider to be their real mother.  Through a charity organized to help Ukrainian children after Chernobyl, several children spend summers and Christmas with generous families in Italy and France, which adds enrichment to the spartan life they experience in the Ukraine.

But the movie slowly unveils problems within this unusual family.  Older children, especially the brightest ones, face difficulties following the educational paths they want.  When some of the European families want to adopt the children, they are blocked by Olga who holds their guardianship.  One girl 'escapes' from the family.  It's clear she's grateful to Olga and still holds her in considerable affection, but feels she needs to pursue the better life in Italy.

The movie ends with the reflections of Kiril, a bright and sensitive boy who makes it to university, resulting in estrangement from Olga.  Kiril characterizes the home as a totalitarian state with Olga in the role of Stalin, and Kiril a dissident.  

This film might have Black and White in the title, but there's nothing black and white about this situation.  It's a complex, nuanced film and not the one the filmmaker originally set out to make.  At first, she was going to make a film about racism in the Ukraine.  Then she thought it would be about the saintly foster mother Olga.  As time went on, the focus veered to the autocratic style of Olga.  The movie ended up containing elements of all these themes.

I wasn't the only one who loved this film.  It won the Best Canadian Feature at Hot Docs. 

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