Family Portrait in Black and White: Sundance Review

Doc about a large mixed-race foster home in the Ukraine could use sharper narrative focus

Julia Ivanova's World Cinema Documentary Competition film features interesting personalities but its viewpoint is too fragmented to pull an audience along.

PARK CITY — Sundance Film Festival, World Cinema Documentary Competition — Centered on a Ukrainian family in which one husbandless woman has raised dozens of orphaned children, Family Portrait in Black and White, its name notwithstanding, paints its picture in many shades of gray. Sensitive but sluggish and lacking a single compelling narrative thread, its theatrical prospects are dim and small-screen potential is just a bit better.

Olga Nenya began taking in foster children years ago and, for reasons unexplored here, didn't know when to stop; currently more than a dozen kids occupy her house, which lacks an indoor toilet or hot water. Many of them, who call Olga Mom and compare her favorably to other foster parents, are mixed-race youths viewed with open hostility in this skinhead-friendly corner of the Ukraine (where 99.9 percent of the population is white). Even the next-door neighbors, alcoholics who lost the rights to their own children, disapprove of the family.
While this color-blind environment and communal spirit may have viewers expecting a rosy-lensed love fest, director Julia Ivanova slowly introduces other perspectives: the troupe of inspectors shocked by living conditions; Olga's unwillingness to let her kids move to loving and better-off homes in Europe; her expressions of favoritism and rejection of household dissent.
After setting the stage for a few narratives within the family, Ivanova returns over three years to watch as household morale withers thanks to bruised egos, stifled ambitions and minor betrayals. As interesting as some of the personalities are, the viewpoint is too fragmented to pull an audience along in the absence of a more probing look at the dark side of Olga's hospitality. Family Portrait leaves viewers wondering if even the most accepting home in the Ukraine might be a lousy place for a misfit child to find himself.
Production Companies: Interfilm Productions Inc., Family Portrait Productions Inc.
Producer: Boris Ivanov
Music: Boris Sichon
Sales: Film Sales Company
No rating, 106 minutes.