Sunday, 2 October 2011

VIFF 2011 - Family Portrait in Black & White

I saw this documentary at a VIFF media screening, and found it genuinely moving.

The film tells the story of Olga Nenya, a single white woman raising 16 black and mixed race foster children in a small town in Ukraine. Opening with shots of skinheads and ordinary people discussing their hatred of blacks, the film reveals its concern for these children early on. They live in a place where most people are quite frank about wishing they had never been born.

Among the most powerful images from the film are of the camera following the children as they walk through  town. The expressions of disgust, loathing, and horror on the faces of the people they meet speak volumes.

But the film isn't mainly concerned with Olga's life, or simply with the theme of racism. Rather, it focuses intimately on the lives of the children - their interests, struggles, and uncertain futures. Olga is clearly a caring and compassionate woman, but her approach to parenting is far from free-to-be-you-and-me. She has clear plans for each of the children, and expects them to embrace hard physical labour, academic achievement, and absolute obedience to her rule. Art and music are considered wasteful frivolities, and reading a distraction from feeding the goats. At one point, one of the older children, Kiril, who studies political science at university, compares his foster mother to a soviet dictator. The analogy has an exaggerated ring of teenage rebellion to it, but it's not an entirely unfair comparison.

Shot in a simple style devoid of pathos, the filmmakers focus on the heartbreaking stories of the children who fall through the cracks. Lack of money and government interference in their lives have far-reaching consequences. Sensitive Andrey is sent to a school for children with special needs and then to a psychiatric hospital where he suffers horrendously. Roman's Ugandan father is unable to regain custody of him and his brother because he cannot pay for a $5000 paternity test. And Maxim loves the family he stays with in Italy in the summers, but cannot be adopted by them as Olga forbids it.

All these stories are told with heartbreaking honesty, and the viewer is invited to draw their own conclusions from the children's matter-of-fact explanations of their lives.

I highly recommend that children see this film - it's an excellent way for them to be introduced to a fascinating family, and to learn about the hurtful effects of racism.

Check it out on the VIFF's website. There are three screenings still to come.

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