“Family Portrait in Black and White” opens today at the AMC 25 Theater on West 42nd St., a typical Cineplex featuring “Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Witness Protection” and other such junk. My recommendation to New Yorkers is to not hold its venue against it since this oddly compelling film has many interesting things to say about racism in a dysfunctional Ukraine and the efforts of a foster mother of 23 children, all but 7 of whom are biracial and tend to have male African exchange students and Ukrainian women as birth parents.
They are being raised by Olga Nenya in Sumy, a farming town. She is loved by all of her foster children even if she runs the ramshackle house without steam heat and indoor toilets as a tyrant. Kiril, a sixteen year old studying music and wise beyond his years, likens Olga to the old Soviet Union and the children—he especially—as repressed but cared for citizens.
The film eschews facile political commentary but one thing it is very clear about. Ukraine is infested by neo-Nazi skinheads who are interviewed throughout the film. They brag about beating up or killing their victims, who tend to be immigrants. Nenya’s children were all born and raised in Ukraine but that does not prevent them from being bullied in school as “niggers” or “black asses”.
One of the benefits of living with Olga Nenya, despite her heavy-handedness, is that having 16 brothers and sisters with a similar background creates a bond of solidarity that makes the racial animosity of Sumy easier to put up with. Oddly enough, there are signs that the children have absorbed some of the same prejudices shared by backward Ukrainians. When we see two of the brood walking down the main street of Sumy, they begin railing against Arabs who have no business living among “us Ukrainians” and trying to take “our women”. A mischievous grin on one of the boy’s faces suggests, however, that he is trying more to be outrageous for the benefit of the film-makers than anything else.
The main tension in the film, and what gives its dramatic drive, is between Olga Nenya’s determination to rule the roost and the children’s struggle to define themselves as independent human beings, reflected most of all by their efforts to be adopted by the wealthier Western European families that take them in over Christmas and the summer vacation. In many respects, the struggle is not that much different than what other “more normal” families experience.
Oddly enough, the film makes no effort to find out what makes Olga Nenya tick. The interviews are mostly with the children who are very comfortable speaking on camera and to maximum effect. Perhaps this was a bid to keep her as something of a mystery. Is she sympathetic to the former Soviet Union in ostalgie fashion? What made her decide to take in so many foster children to begin with?
Perhaps the fact that these questions linger in my mind three days after watching this poignant drama is what the film-makers intended.