Engaging docu “Family Portrait in Black and White” considers the much-extended household of Olga Nenya, a middle-aged Ukrainian woman who’s foster mother to 17 children, many mixed-race. But while the pic initially appears an inspirational portrait of one small domestic stand against pervasive racism, the real drama of Julia Ivanova’s feature lies in the kids’ dawning perception that their well-intentioned but stubbornly old-fashioned benefactress may be unable or unwilling to make the right decisions for their future. Pic should snap up broadcast deals along the fest route, with niche theatrical sales possible in markets with emigre enclaves from former Soviet territories.
A figure who wouldn’t be out of place in a 1930s USSR agricultural propaganda film, Nenya is proudly unconcerned about the derogatory attitudes a seeming majority of her fellow countrymen feel toward blacks. We hear skinheads offer such wisdoms as, “If a white and a subhuman produce an offspring, the resulting creature can only be an idiot.” Similar sentiments are heard from her next-door neighbor — who moments later is seen stumbling around in the perpetual drunken stupor that’s cost him custody of his own child.
Some of Nenya’s charges are half-African or half-Middle Eastern, and most know little about their biological parents, who presumably abandoned them because of the social stigma. All consider her their true mother, and are grateful for all she’s done for them. Still, her constant nagging to feed the goats or tend the vegetable garden is just about the only note she can play: When the children are old enough to forge lives of their own, her limited worldview proves a real problem.
Nenya refuses to let any of them be adopted elsewhere (many have long visited European host families in the summer through a post-Chernobyl exchange program), even when their prospects would greatly improve as a result. She indulges disabled, dropout eldest Egor — whom the others consider a bully and delinquent — while taking a hard line with her bright younger ones’ pleas to take advantage of educational or training opportunities that have been offered. For instance, in order to realize his potential, musically inclined, clearly quite brilliant 16-year-old Kiril must finally rebel — an action that brings cruel retaliation from “Mama.”
Nenya is no monster, but simply an uneducated relic of another era. Having chosen a virtuous but unpopular path (which drove her husband away long ago), she may simply be protecting herself from loneliness in keeping her wards close when they’d often be better off flying free.
Well-crafted, nicely scored pic twice jumps a year ahead to update protags’ progress. Most viewers would be delighted if Ivanova revisited them all in another few years for a follow-up feature.