Family Portrait in Black and White, a film by Julia Ivanova, documents the family of Olga Nenya, a Ukrainian woman raising 23 foster children, 16 of whom are biracial. In present-day Ukraine, where prejudices remain and welfare infrastructure is nonexistent, Olga and her children rally against the challenges and inequities of their conditions. And, more interestingly, chafe against each other.
Olga’s children are primarily the product of relationships between African exchange students and Ukrainian women. Mostly abandoned and unwanted, Olga adopts these children in an effort to provide them with a sense of love and family. Though uncertain of their biological heritage, these children see themselves as authentically Ukrainian. Yet what it means to be Ukrainian is contested and debated throughout the film. Family Portrait highlights this concept of identity is with several cultural tropes. Olga is positioned as the welcoming bosom of the Motherland, her sturdy frame a force of maternal soulfulness. The children play among the lushly wooded forests and lakes, which are filmed with an almost sublime reverence and punctuated by the music of an ethereal yet forlorn song. Their home is a humble (read: dilapidated), agrarian residence where livestock roam and the family gardens. There are lots of cats and perpetually drunk, racist neighbors.
The documentary’s appropriation and distortion of some of the film’s iconic imagery indicates just how shallow and misleading they can be. Take, for instance, two scenes in which groups of Ukrainian folk dancers perform routines for community events. Their outfits have a less modest, more kitsch sensibility but still incorporate some of the traditional embroidery and design elements so indicative of the folk look. There is an element of the uncanny — or something counterfeit — in these dances, that becomes especially obvious when the announcer celebrates these routines and customs as a representation of Ukraine’s glorious past. But Ukraine’s present-day identity is still very much in flux; it can’t easily be repurposed from the remnants of the country’s historical and cultural legacy. Especially, when, like many nations, xenophobia forms a part of that legacy.
What’s at play in Family Portrait are not necessarily the racial divides felt by Olga’s children, but instead, generational ones. The social transitions in post-Soviet Ukraine which have yet to materialize, creating a climate where Western notions of independence, self-determination, and freedom are complicated by the legacy of a very recent political shift. Ukraine as a nation is still negotiating its relationship between pro-Moscow sympathies and Western-leaning aspirations, all the while trying to assert its own independence despite the pressures of globalization. These tensions provide fertile territory for a new generation of Ukrainians to question and investigate past traditions and attitudes.
Olga’s son Kiril — “Mr. President” as he is teasingly called throughout the film — is the character who is most vocal and aware of these inconsistencies. He’s struggling to come of age in an environment that is unsupportive of his aspirations, which themselves are counter to Olga’s ideals. He wants to eventually go to university in the city, only eats organic food, and attends the local music school despite his mother’s demands that he enroll in a program for the academically gifted. Eventually, Kiril and his mother’s competing personalities react and combust — a pattern which is near universal to adolescent/parent relationships, as teenagers struggle to cultivate their own sense of self. Ukraine isn’t so different. Without making an over-determined, unreasonably simple metaphor (Kiril provides us with this towards the end of the film, so no need to indulge it here), it’s fair to say that comparisons can be made between the family’s dynamic in Family Portrait and the condition of Ukraine in the geo-political and social sphere. The film neatly conveys difficult, troubling, and sensitive issues through the prism of this family’s struggles, all in tandem with the evolution of nation. Ultimately, though, these issues simply require more inquiry than the scope of the film allows.