A lot of grey in 'Black and White'

JIM SLOTEK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:27 PM ET

Family Portrait In Black And White -- a documentary that was shortlisted for this year's Oscars -- is only superficially true to its title.

It presents Olga Nenya, a woman in the Ukrainian city of Sumy who has taken in foster children -- most of them mixed-race -- by the dozens.

The racial aspect of the story gets pounded home in the first few minutes, with interviews among the local skinhead population about beating up "subhumans," and rants about racial inbreeding from Olga's vodka soused neighbours.

But there are many shades of grey -- and plenty of narrative holes -- in this story of a woman who keeps kids like cats, who is under a barrage of threats from local child care authorities, and to whom some of her own foster children compare to Stalin.

It does seem as if Olga's only friends in the world are foreigners. Her house, as chicken-cooped as it is, is paid for by a British charity. She is in constant contact with adoption groups who "lend out" her foster kids to homes in Italy (although she is adamantly, and possibly unethically, opposed to any and all permanent adoptions).

On the other hand, if Family Portrait In Black And White's picture of the unfriendly reception of blacks in Ukraine is to be believed, the worst conditions in her home are preferable to the persecution that awaits outside.

In one case, a Ghanaian student is interviewed about the child he had with a Ukrainian woman who gave the child up (one of Olga's brood), and a "racist" local law that demands he pay an unaffordable $5,000 for a DNA test to prove he is the biological father. Bureaucracy prevents father and son, who want to be together, from connecting.

Family Portrait pays particular attention to the children Olga has "problems" with, and her penchant towards favouritism. The most charismatic teen, Kiril, is academically-driven and is offered scholarships. But Olga openly dislikes him because he neglects chores to study (it's Kiril, who when finally on his own in university in Kiev, who compares her to Stalin).

Similarly chafing is Roman, a gifted soccer player whose coach begs Olga to let him play with an eye on an athletic scholarship. Again, she trumps up excuses to keep him off the pitch, accompanied by shrieking scolds over his failure to put away his clothes.

There are other "rebels," including teenage Anya, who refuses to leave her comparatively flush Italian foster family. And then there are the rest (including Andrey, who has severe mental issues), who maintain an almost cult-like devotion to the woman who rescued them from orphanages.

There is so much unspoken, something that makes warning bells ring about much of what we see in Family Portrait In Black And White. Olga may even be a little unbalanced. And yet, as harsh and demanding as life is in her barracks, there is something clearly darker out there that keeps most of the kids with her.

It should be incumbent on director Julia Ivanova to provide focus. Instead she is all over the narrative maps, finding scattered dots and leaving the connections to the viewer.

 


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