4:55 PM EDT, September 13, 2012
It sounds like a frontal assault on the tear ducts: a documentary about a formidable Ukrainian foster mother whose yellow Crocs belie a steely controlling streak, and her various orphan kids, mostly of biracial parentage. But "Family Portrait in Black and White" steers clear of sentimentality, heading instead toward more complicated and resonant matters of racism and the mixed blessing (based on the film's evidence) that is Olga Nenya, the woman at the center.
She lives in the town of Sumy, where several of the offspring of visiting African students and local women have landed in Olga's care. Their neighbors regard these kids as social pariahs, a blight on Ukraine ("I don't like such people," says one neighbor, matter-of-factly). The kids, along with various goats, chickens, dogs and cats, jostle for Olga's attention in a big, overstuffed house with an outhouse (no indoor toilet). Early in director Julia Ivanova's documentary, Olga and company are paid an unwanted visit from the mayor's office. "Show me your dinnerware," one bureaucrat murmurs, as if discussing state secrets. The film, a feat of unforced and watchful insight, hustles after this child and that, each dealing with problems different than those of the other kids.
And then the film gets really interesting. After host families in other countries (notably Italy) take in some of the children for good stretches of time, we return to Sumy and begin to see and hear another, more blinkered side of Olga. At heart, says one of her disgruntled charges, she's a symbol of the old Stalinist order, whose "values in life are discipline and constant physical labor." Only occasionally does the proximity of Ivanova's camera to some bruising interactions, physical as well as psychological, edge into exploitation. "Family Portrait" never reduces Olga to an archetype. Like each of her adopted children, she's a lifetime of paradoxes, weaknesses and strengths inside one human being.
'Family Portrait in Black and White' -- 3 1/2 stars
No MPAA rating (some violence and language)
Running time: 1:39; in Ukrainian with English subtitles.
Plays: Friday-Thursday at Facets Cinematheque
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