Thursday, 1 March 2012


Family Portrait in Black and White (2011) dir. Julia Ivanova


By Greg Klymkiw

The first time I visited Ukraine, the land of my forefathers, two things struck me.

First of all, I felt a strange, overwhelming sense - perhaps due to my own upbringing in Canada - that THIS was where I came from, even though I wasn't born anywhere near the place. The feeling of being from this seemingly magical country, being able to read the cyrillic letters, listening to people talk and realizing I understood more Ukrainian (and to a certain extent, Russian) than I thought I did and even feeling like it was a place I could live in since Canada (or more specifically, the city of Toronto) was really starting to drive me nuts. Even later in the first and subsequent trips when aspects of my time there became utterly horrendous, I somehow was able to explain it away by thinking to myself and/or saying to my (non-Ukrainian WASP wife), "I know my people all too well."

The second thing that struck me was that during my first few days there, I saw absolutely no Black people - not one single person even VAGUELY resembling someone of African descent. This was so overwhelming that even now I can clearly remember the three times that I actually DID see people of colour (excluding Asians, of course, there seemed to be plenty of them - more than enough Ukrainian women were raped when Mongol hordes occasionally pillaged the land).

The first Black person I saw was in a loge in the majestic Kyiv Opera House. He was an extremely handsome, dressed-to-the-nines gentleman with brown skin and a mix of African and Slavic features. The second time, I saw three Black people. They were clearly students, in their early twenties and entered one of my favourite restaurants in Kyiv - the best Ukrainian food I've had since my Baba died and cheap like the proverbial borscht. The third and final time I saw a Black person was on the stage of the Ukrainian National Philharmonic - the acclaimed American baritone Stephen Salters who performed a stunning selection of traditional African-American spirituals that had a standing-room-only house of Ukrainians leaping to their feet again and again and frankly, not leaving too many dry eyes after each and every song.

This latter experience especially came to mind as I watched Julia Ivanova's feature-length documentary Family Portrait in Black and White because it was so shocking to see and hear some of the most virulent racism towards people of African descent that seemed more at home in Alabama (easily the most openly racist place I ever had the displeasure to spend time in), but surely not the same countrymen that were so welcoming and moved by Stephen Salters.

Then again, I had to remind myself that Ivanova's documentary is set in the Sumy Oblast of Eastern Ukraine and that my most horrendous experiences in the country happened in the East. After Stalin butchered millions of Ukrainians and parachuted millions of Russians into Ukraine - most of them settled in Eastern Ukraine and this is where the insular, backwards and ruthless Soviet influence was most prominent. In fact, many cities in the East are rife with corruption and are major centres of the Russian mob.

In this sense, half the country - the East - is kind of like one big, ole' Alabama.

And it's in this setting that the film focuses upon Olga Nenya, a primarily Russian-speaking Ukrainian woman of middle age who has opened her heart and home to children who have been abandoned by their birth parents because of the colour of their skin. Over the years, many African men - primarily from Uganda - have come to Ukraine as foreign students to study. Ukraine has a great reputation for its educational institutions and low tuitions. (A Lebanese acquaintance studied medicine in Ukraine and has a successful practise in Paris - though, speaking of racism, his credentials weren't "good enough" for Canada.) And as any healthy, young lad is wont to do anywhere, but especially when alone in a country populated by some of the most stunningly gorgeous young women in the world (Olga Kurylenko, for one), they'll more than likely partake of the forbidden fruits (as it were). What this has sadly resulted in are huge numbers of Black children abandoned in orphanages.

However, here in the Sumy Oblast, seventeen Black kids have a home and a mother. Granted, the home is physically a shambles (though from my experience, pretty common for Eastern Ukraine), but the kids have a surprising amount of privacy, they have food, shelter, a bed, companionship and yes, a sense of family.

Nenya is a powerhouse - a true Russian-Ukrainian battle axe. She only wants what she thinks is best for the kids - a good work ethic, an education and a chance to get a job and contribute to the "new" Ukraine. That said, two of her children are gifted in soccer and music respectively and she has absolutely no use for this - she has no understanding how these interests will put "bread" on their tables when they leave the nest.

The kids are all expected to do their part - tend to the goats, cook, clean and do well in school. Nenya also has no use for the ignorance and racism of her fellow neighbours and countrymen. She especially detests snooty bureaucrats and in one delightful scene she deals with a barrage of social workers and city officials who pop by for a visit in the only way one can deal with these horrible people - with the sort of contempt that hurls garbage back in their faces. Bureaucrats the world over are all the same, it seems.

Her foster children clearly love her and are grateful that they are treated as family. That said, a few of them have established relationships with foreign families in Italy who sponsor children for holiday visits through a humanitarian program that began after the Chernobyl tragedy. Some of them long to leave Ukraine and move to Italy. Nenya essentially thinks of these foreign foster parents as part-time babysitters who also allow her time off and the opportunity to save some money for those periods the kids are away. Besides, as she points out, a bird can only have "one nest". I can't say I really disagree with this sentiment.

Of all the children, it is probably the story of Kiril that is the most compelling. He's the eldest and closest to leaving the nest. His feelings about Nenya are mixed. He clearly loves her and appreciates that she's made a home for him and the others, but he's also an artistic soul and wishes to pursue his love of music and literature. This, he eventually does, leaving for Kyiv to study journalism at university. Nenya is bitter about this decision and clearly there's bad blood between them that's not resolved.

Then again, there are many unresolved issues in the film. Ivanova has chosen to mostly eschew the oft-expected narrative tradition - especially in recent documentaries. As the title suggests, she is presenting a "portrait" which, delivers a portion, a glimpse, a tiny window into something that is clearly bigger. This is, on one hand, admirable, but it's equally frustrating. Ivanova tries to present all of the children's stories equally and instead, we get not enough of too many. Kiril, is by far the most compelling of the kids and I probably would have preferred more of his story and relationship with Nenya than the others.

What's especially confounding is that the film never adequately addresses how or why Nenya was compelled to undertake this compassionate responsibility. What was it like to take legal charge of these kids? What was the process? What were the challenges? What were the joys? The pain? By the end of the film, we get a portrait of Nenya, but we don't get a bigger picture. I really don't feel like I know enough about her and frankly, I want to. Who is she? What is her extended family like? What was her relationship with her own parents? Did she ever have any friends, lovers, neighbours or anyone other than her foster children that she was close too? Why does she detest Kiril's artistic pursuits and intelligence so much? Is it, as Kiril suggests when commenting on Nenya, that the Stalinist form of communism she reveres and misses, really what drives her? (He calls his mother "the leader" and compares her to Stalin, "the great leader". I really loved this kid!) OR is there something more? She's clearly an intelligent woman, but what is it that drives her to such an anti-intellectual and anti-cultural position?

At a certain point I wanted Ivanova to move beyond the "portrait" because the subject, Nenya, is so fascinating that she demands more. While there might have been exigencies of production that didn't allow for such added probing, the fact remains that based upon the finished product, more was needed.

There are numerous things that are either left maddeningly unsaid or, for all the film's attempts to present things raw WITHOUT a slant, or angle or too much of the filmmaker's voice (all admirable, but not always satisfying), the movie DOES present a few unbalanced issues that feel (intentionally or not) like a very one-sided portrait. At one point, Kiril talks about what it means to be a Ukrainian and that it is a cultural identity he relates to and wants to relate to even more. I'll grant you it is because I feel close to this heritage that I was so deeply moved by this, however, the movie also disturbed me since it provided far too many one-sided negative portraits of Ukrainians and Ukrainian culture.

There are, for example, very few Ukrainians presented who share Nenya's compassion for these children. I just find this hard to swallow. Ukraine is a country that has suffered under the yoke of Russian, Polish, Turkish, Austrian, German and Mongolian oppression for its entire history as a nation and culture. Maybe I cannot proclaim the entire country or nation as being open to relating to the African experience on (at least a level of repression and/or genocide) based solely upon a few hundred Ukrainians weeping and cheering the African-American spirituals sung by Stephen Salters in Kyiv, but for all the documented racism, there are always two sides and some balance might have been nice. Why, for example, does Ivanova go out of her way (it seems) to present ONLY fuck-witted Ukrainian skinheads or Nenya's drunken, ignorant racist neighbour? And what about that neighbour? What drove him to drink to the point where he LOST his children? Why present such a one-sided portrait without even attempting to understand where this comes from? Who knows? Eastern Ukrainians suffered a great deal under Stalin and subsequent Soviet regimes (including the ethnic Russians forced to move there). The repression, poverty, discrimination could well be traced back to policies of genocide and Russification.

Another oddly offensive one-sided portrait is of the Ukrainian women who supposedly "abandoned" their Black children in orphanages? Why are they portrayed as so thoughtless? So heartless? For a multitude of Ukrainian women - no matter what or who their children are - placing their children in orphanages is their only hope that maybe, just maybe their children will have a better life than they can provide them?

What of the African men who have seduced and abandoned their blonde, blue-eyed living sex toys and by extension the results of their seed-scattering - the children? Are they blameless? Throughout the entire film I kept wondering if we were ever going to get an interview with an older African male in Ukraine. I would have loved to hear the opinions of some of the Ugandan students on the fates of these children who were sired by fellow members of their country? And finally, when Ivanova DOES present an interview with ONE African man who DOES care about his children and wants them back. It's a brief interview that takes place well into the film and the context it's presented in, once again, raises more questions that the film doesn't bother to answer. The man claims he will wait in Ukraine until the children can legally leave the care of Nenya so he can be their father. He states that the Ministry presiding over Ukrainian orphans are asking him to prove, via DNA testing - at his expense - that the children are really his. Well, uh, yeah! Makes sense to me. Anyone can say they're the biological father of a child. It has to be proven. If he can't afford it, what is his embassy or consulate doing about it? Has he even tried to secure their financial and/or political assistance?

This is a movie so full of magnificent moments that I kept longing for it to soar as it had the potential to. It's finally never enough for any movie to present a "portrait". When there are too many questions left unanswered, when there are endless one-sided perspectives as unfair and hateful as those presented amongst some of the film's subjects, part of me thinks that the filmmaker didn't get the job done. That said, Ivanova clearly has the soul of a filmmaker. She shot the film herself and there are images of such poignance, beauty and artistry, that I simply cannot believe that this is all there is.

Maybe, just maybe, there's enough material on the cutting room floor and, more importantly so much more material yet to be shot, that eventually, Ivanova, like Michael Apted and his extraordinary "Up" series will return to these people and this subject and present a lifetime document as anthropologically and artistically important as Apted's.

I hope so. She owes it to the kids, to Nenya, to the country and its culture. She certainly owes it to herself to take potentially wonderful material to even greater heights. Most of all, she owes it to the audience and potential audiences. With Family Portrait in Black and White, I personally see the beginnings of something that could be imbued with significance and staying power beyond its wildest dreams.

That's what makes it art.

"Family Portrait in Black and White" is in limited platform release across Canada via Vagrant Films (with a current playdate at Toronto's Royal Theatre). It played at the Sundance Film Festival and is a Hot-Docs Award Winner. It has been nominated for a Genie Award for Best Feature Documentary.