It sounds like a reality-TV premise, Octomom times four: Olga Nenya, a single Ukrainian mother of limited means, has 27 children, 23 of whom are adopted or foster children, and 16 of those are biracial. She doesn’t have the means to care for them properly, but in a country where orphanages are squalid prisons and neo-Nazis and casual racists prevalent, she can’t help herself. She figures that her imperfect but loving home is far better than stranding these children in a system where they’re subjected to neglect and racial animus. Julia Ivanova’s sloppy documentary Family Portrait In Black And White tries to capture the dynamic between Nenya and her children, as well as their family and the hostility of neighbors and government bureaucrats, but the footage doesn’t cut together well. It’s a halting, disjointed series of scenes that only give a rough sketch of Nenya’s family and the cultural issues that affect its wellbeing.
From the robust neo-Nazi rally that opens the film to footage of the next-door neighbors ranting drunkenly about interracial relationships, Ivanova establishes the difficult context for Nenya’s dogged experiment in leading a family of pariahs. Though she gets some help from foster families in France and Italy, who take some of the children during the summer, Nenya refuses to sign adoption papers, because she wants the kids to remain Ukrainian. That nationalism carries over into a Soviet-era collectivist view of them as laborers working for a common cause, which causes problems when one of the older kids expresses an interest in college and higher intellectual pursuits. But there’s a tender side to Nenya, too, revealed in the sad case of Andrey, a 14-year-old who suffered abuse in a boarding school for special-needs kids, and would have suffered for a lifetime without her intervention.
Ivanova takes pains neither to lionize Nenya for her sacrifice and motherly love (which are apparent) nor to decry her for her bullheadedness and the inadequacies of her living situation (which are equally apparent). Some scenes paint her as a mother Hhen like Lillian Gish in The Night Of The Hunter, an indomitable protector of lost children. Others show a stubbornness that stunts the kids’ growth and an unavoidable neglect that leads some to drink, smoke, and get into trouble when she isn’t around. Yet there’s no organizing principle in Ivanova’s documentary, which unfolds in a ragged, seat-of-the-pants style that mirrors its subject’s day-to-day life all too closely. Nenya’s flock proves too big for the film to wrangle.