‘The Strangest Family in Eastern Europe’

Compassion, it would seem, isn’t the sole attribute necessary for perfect parenting. At least that is what documentarian Julia Ivanova found during her work of the film Family Portrait in Black and White.

The film, which screens today at 7:45pm and Wednesday at 3:30pm, tells the story of Olga Nenya, a foster parent in the Ukraine who takes in and raises 16 mixed-race children. The film touches on a social problem in the racially sensitive country, where outward racism leads to the abortion or abandonment of many such children, who themselves are typically the result of affairs between local women and visiting men from Africa.

“There are no black people in this country,” Ivanova says. “This is what happens if a one-night stand results in a pregnancy.”

While Nenya has the heart to take in these discarded children, it doesn’t mean she bears no prejudices of her own. A devoted Soviet loyalist, she is opposed to international adoptions and is often an oppressive parent, Ivanova says.

“She is protecting them from outwardly racist neighbors, but crushing their dreams in other ways,” the director says.

While the film can seem unflattering, Ivanova though it was important not to present the typical picture of a foster parent as a saint. If viewers can get past the subtitles, Ivanova says, they will see universal issues about parenting.

Ivanova herself is originally from Russia but is a Canadian citizen today. She has made a half dozen television documentaries for public television in Canada, but this is just her second festival feature film. Family Portrait screened at Sundance, Ivanova says, but she has since done a major edit, and Sarasota audiences will be the first to see this cut of the film before she takes it to other festivals.

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