Any documentary looking at familial bonds should be complex in nature. The deeply personal relationships between parents, children, spouses, and potential exes or absentee parents are things that can’t be glossed over in a matter of seconds. Films that deal with the even more complex subject of foster parenting also owe it to themselves to delve into the backstory of the children involved, if at all possible. What makes Canadian director Julia Ivanova’s commanding and exemplary documentary Family Portrait in Black and White so special is just how thoroughly complex her subjects are and how much Ivanova rises to a yeoman like task to cover it all.
The film, which deservedly won best Canadian feature at last year’s HotDocs festival, chronicles three years in the fostering efforts of Olga Nenya, an Ukranian woman with a short, domineering manner who has fostered 18 children and has one of her own. While fostering so many children seems like a huge and almost foolhardy task for a woman with so little resources and even less money, compounding the issue is the fact that 16 of them are black and mixed race children (many from foreign backgrounds) asked to live in a country where racism is still extremely prevalent and out in the open for all to see. As for Nenya’s only biological son, he’s a disabled, racist thief and bully that makes everyone’s life miserable.
While crafting a film with enough characterization for at least ten movies (each of the children profiled in the film could easily deserve their own movie), Ivanova stays admirably on task with her core questions regarding Nenya’s true motives. To what extent does the woman genuinely want to help these children? Is she a hoarder of kids in a way? Is she keeping them simply to compensate for her own son’s shortcomings? Are the kids better off living with her when some have parents looking to reclaim them? What do these kids stand to gain by living in such a threatening environment with a woman with Glasnost era political leanings?
There aren’t many easy answers to any of these questions, making Family Portrait in Black and White one of the best ever examinations of the complexities of assembled families. To pack so much into a 90 minute film and still have it be preternaturally coherent shows how much of a filmmaking talent Ivanova truly is. Unjustly left off last year’s final list of Oscar nominees for best documentary (although it was short-listed), the film begins a week long run at The Royal in Toronto that shouldn’t be missed. Masterfully packed with more societal and psychological issues than any documentary last year, this film simply dazzles.
Directed by: Julia Ivanova