Olga Nenya is an extraordinary woman, and that much is obvious once you’re ten minutes into Julia Ivanova’s documentary Family Portrait in Black and White. By the end of the film, you’ll certainly feel the same way, but what else you may think about her is an open question. Nenya’s story is at the heart of this movie, but while she’s clearly doing something good and noble under difficult circumstances, after 85 minutes it’s an open question if she’s doing the right thing for the right reasons. It would have been easy to craft a documentary that would make Olga Nenya seem like a saint, but instead Ivanova has made a film about a human being, one with flaws living in a time and place where humankind’s failings are hovering all around her, and the humanity of this picture’s subjects is what makes it a compelling experience.
Olga Nenya lives in Sumy, a rural community in the Ukraine. Nenya has four grown children, but when Ivanova and her camera crew first come to visit, she’s sharing her home with no fewer than 17 foster children. What makes this even more extraordinary is that nearly all of her foster kids are mixed-race children, the abandoned offspring of African students (who come to the Ukraine for its inexpensive colleges) and Ukrainian women with whom they’ve had short-lived relationships. In a nation where more than 99% of the population is white, racism is common, and skinhead gangs are a growing problem, Nenya’s willingness to take in so many children who almost literally no one else would want is truly commendable, and she does it with meager support. Ukrainian officials have little interest in helping Nenya with her sizable foster family, and most of her financial support comes from overseas (she bought her home with help from a charitable group in the United Kingdom), while much of their food comes from her own garden (her herds of goats and flocks of chickens are a frequent sight in the movie). Nenya takes her duties very seriously, and most of the children in her home look on her as their real mother, whatever their biological heritage may be. But Nenya’s home is a ramshackle farmhouse that usually seems too small and too flimsy for the constant buzz of activity taking place inside; the house also has no indoor toilets or hot water, and when social-services inspectors stop by and declare the place is simply unfit for so many children, it’s not hard to see their point.
Nenya is fiercely proud of her Ukrainian heritage, and so are the kids (the picture allows us to think what we will of one of her mixed-race children making racist statements about the African and Arab students who are a growing presence in the Ukraine). However, Nenya came of age during the Soviet era, and still believes in the collectivist notion that the needs of the group are more important than those of the individual. As one might expect, this doesn’t always go over well with her kids, especially as they grow older and (like most teenagers) want to assert their independence, and by the time the movie reaches the halfway point, at least two of Nenya’s children have struck out on their own. One, a clearly intelligent and headstrong young man, wants to study music and journalism, which Nenya considers foolish and impractical, and when he heads off to college, she cuts off all contact with him, making no secret of her bitterness as she says her faith in him was misplaced. Another is a girl who (like many of Nenya’s charges) has been spending her summers with a host family in Italy for several years. They were interested in adopting her, but Nenya refused to permit it (an edict that holds for all her kids), and once the girl turned 18, she left Nenya and joined her second family in Italy, where she seems to live a far more comfortable and settled life with greater opportunities. As much as she misses her siblings, it’s obvious her relationship with Nenya has been damaged beyond repair.
Olga Nenya is a very complicated woman, generous but with a will of iron and no patience for debate once she’s made up her mind, and Julia Ivanova allows the audience to make up their own mind about her. Family Portrait in Black and White never paints her as a saint or a villain, but as someone with virtues and flaws whose choices put her to the test on a regular basis. The documentary extends the same courtesy to her children, who speak freely about the sometimes-harrowing circumstances of their early lives, and their feelings about Nenya, which are usually generous but occasionally dotted with anger and frustration (especially the teenagers, who speak with the adolescent’s usual certainty, as well as a touch of the stubbornness they may have picked up from Nenya). Director Ivanova draws a vivid picture of the cheerful, sometimes overwhelmingly chaotic life with 17 children of various ages, as well as the challenges of keeping them clothed, fed, and occupied. And the film is little short of heartbreaking when it focuses on a child with behavioral problems who had been through the ringer of the Ukrainian social-services system; it’s clear Nenya loves him, and he loves her, but her unwillingness to admit he has problems she can’t deal with is damning, despite her support and concern. As Ivanova puts their story onscreen, less than condemning Nenya, it invites the question, “What would any of you do in this circumstance?” And for good or ill, the answer probably is, not half of what Olga Nenya does on any given day.
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