Family Portrait In Black And White

Family Portrait In Black And White


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

There was an old woman who live in a shoe, who had so many children she didn't know what to do...

Olga Nenya doesn't live in a shoe - she has a rambling old house in the Ukrainian countryside - but she has been mother to 27 children, most of them still living with her when this story begins. All of those who remain are adopted or fostered. Many are the mixed-race children of immigrants, abandoned and rejected in a country where racism is endemic. One has a physical disability; another struggles at school due to serious problems with concentration. Each has a story to tell.

Olga's story is a complex one. Filming over a number of years, the documentary team rarely posed direct questions to her - most of what we see is simple observation. She loves the children but she has a strong sense of ownership; the eldest suggests she has set herself up like a dictator in a Soviet state. She's controlling but perhaps she needs to be if she is to keep order. She makes sure all the children wash, dress appropriately, eat, go to school and learn the value of hard work. The problem is that there's not much room for them to nurture their individual ambitions. Kiril, who loves music, says he feels like a dissident because he is determined to go in his own direction.

It's understandable that Olga might see her care of the children, for all its problems, as better than the care the state could offer them. More problematic is her refusal to let any of them be adopted by Western European families who foster them over the summer. When they're 18 they can do what they like, she says, but it's not clear whether or not she understands that it will then be too late for them to become EU citizens, with all the advantages that entails. This is where more direct questioning might have been useful. Olga does say that Ukraine needs these children, suggesting she is driven at least in part by a sense of duty, and one of the boys addresses the subject more effectively in saying that he wants to live in his homeland, refusing to be pressured into exile in part because of his race.

Despite the fantastic image this family first presents, the film's best trick is to reveal the ways in which it resembles any other. The little kids love their mum; the older ones gradually cleave away, sometimes becoming resentful. Teenagers get up to no good and are increasingly difficult to keep track of, but even those who break away say they hope that, in the end, everyone can be happy together on their own terms. Chores are resented, the kids argue over clothes, but they also, clearly, have a lot of fun together. It's imperfect and messy. There's generational conflict that stems from the changing nature of Ukrainian society. The disparate note comes from what is going on in that society elsewhere: a menacing shadow, the rise of the far right.

Flawed like its subject but fascinating nonetheless, this is a film with multiple pleasures to offer and plenty of difficult questions to ask.

Reviewed on: 25 Jan 2012
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A middle aged Ukrainian woman raises twenty seven children in a crumbling rural house, whilst racial prejudice threatens the security of many of the adoptees.
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Director: Julia Ivanova

Year: 2011

Runtime: 99 minutes

Country: Canada

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