I recently watched a documentary called “Family Portrait in Black and White” and it was too great for me to not share about it here on my blog.  Not only does it hit at the heart of my blog – orphan care in Eastern Europe, but also brings to light issues of race, nationality, family, and even orphan hosting!

“In a small Ukrainian town, Olga Nenya, raises 16 black orphans amidst a population of Slavic blue-eyed blondes. Their stories expose the harsh realities of growing up as a bi-racial child in Eastern Europe.” (IMDb.com)

This documentary, filmed in 2010, shows so many aspects of modern life in eastern Ukraine (Sumy), not only the life of the orphan, but even more at risk, the life of multi-racial orphans in a very Caucasian society.  Interviews show both Ukrainians and international visitors explaining the reality of life for these ostracized children.  Many people come from the middle-east and Africa to get a cheap education, and while studying in Ukraine, the end up getting white Ukrainian women pregnant.  It is a very shameful thing for these girls to bring home a mixed-race child, so it is commonly accepted fact of life that all these children end up in orphanages. 

They are Diamonds

I love the way Olga Nenya, the foster mom whose family is the focus of the film, talks about her foster children.  She says: “Many European families that host the kids in the summer call me saying they want to adopt this child.  But I don’t think Ukraine is such a wealthy country to give such ‘diamonds’ as presents to other countries.  Ukraine should value each and every one. They are Ukrainian citizens. Ukraine needs them.” Although she is preventing these children from being adopted – which is a totally different issue – it is because she values them so much.  She sees worth in children that so many others see as worthless. 

Orphan Hosting

Another thing I loved about this film was the way it gave a different perspective of orphan hosting – which is not at all mentioned in the trailers or descriptions, but actually seemed to make up a big part of their story! 

According to the movie, “Since the Chernobyl disaster, European charities have been helping disadvantaged Ukrainian children.  Seven of Olga’s foster children spend their summers with host families in Europe.”  I have never heard that orphan hosting is connected with Chernobyl… and I actually doubt that statement’s validity.  But to the makers of the film, there was some connection between that and the time orphan hosting began. 

All of her children who were hosted went to families in Europe – France and Italy were the ones mentioned.  To her as foster mom, she did not see them as a second family.  She saw them as strangers who cared for the kids and helped her alleviate some financial needs while the children were not at home for the summer. 

The film shows Maxim, one of her foster sons, and his hosting experience in Italy.  He had a single host dad and grandpa he stayed with every summer and Christmas.  You got to see them playing together, working on math homework, cooking dinner together, chatting about memories from previous hosting sessions, and speaking an impressive amount of Italian.  Sadly, his host dad could not adopt him because the countries do not allow single men to adopt, and Mama Nenya would never have allowed it anyways.  It was also heart wrenching to watch their goodbye, as both the boy and host family cried, and Max loaded a bus full of other hosted orphans headed back to Ukraine.  You could just see how bittersweet it was for him to leave a host family he loved and also return to a foster family he loves. 

This helped me to get a little more of a glimpse of what it’s like for our NHFC kids to be hosted.  Although they do not return to a home and a foster family, it is bittersweet for them to leave the US and return to a place they call home, although it may seem inferior to what they had during the summer or Christmas.  It is still home to them. 

Philosophical Parallel

At the end of the film, one of the older boys who has gone off to study in the University is featured with some very poignant statements.  Towards the end of his time in the foster home, things went bad between him and Mama Nenya.  Their mindsets were very different. 

This wasn’t the typical teen vs. parent conflict, and the film presents the ideological conflict that makes this documentary transcend the simple family/orphan storyline.  There is a montage of interview clips back and forth between Kiril, the older boy now on his own, and Olga Nenya, who is still at home with the other children but still very disapproving of Kiril. 

Mama: “We are living through times of change, Perestroika in Ukraine.  Moral norms are changing drastically.  Now it’s all about individual freedom.”   
Kiril: “None of mom’s older children are university educated.  Their values in life are discipline and constant physical labor.  What ‘art’? What ‘music’?  These things are not even considered.” 
M: “ ‘You have no right to impose your will on me.’  I disagree with that.”   
K: “If you think about it, our family resembles a totalitarian, Soviet regime.” 
M: “Soviet pioneers used to have duties.  Having a duty is very different from choosing whether you want to do something or not.”
K: “It’s like a herd! Perhaps, this comparison is rude but it’s accurate.”
M: “A child knows only food, potty, and parental care.  What opinions can he possibly have?”
K: “Mom is "’The Leader’, like Stalin was ‘The Greatest Leader’.  The rest are ‘Masses’.  Masses work together, perform collective work, and obey the decisions of just one person.  If not, your spirit will be crushed.”
M: “I saw something in Kiril which is not there.  I made a mistake.  It hurts.”
K: “I felt I was a dissident in our family.”
M: “He grew into a student but not a son and not a good person.”
K: “The children turned their back on me. Simply because they do what mom says.”
M: “I don’t want to talk about that person.”
K: “Now I only have three people in my life: Anna, Silva, Roma. They stayed with me through everything, never betrayed me.  I hope every one of us will have a happy life.  I wish that one day we might get together as friends, as a big, happy family.  We would talk about what we do, and where we live, and who became what in life.”

This part of the film really brought up some questions for me…
Did she really raise her foster children with a Soviet-like ideology?
Can you do both that and be totally loving?
How could a loving mother deny him as a son, a good person, and not want to talk to him?
Is this how family life should be?
I living in a loving and yet totalitarian home better than being in a cold institution?

The film did not provide answers, but really causes the viewer to ponder these deep concepts.  And I’m still thinking about it myself…

As for you, I really encourage you to check out the film!  It’s not your typical heart-warming orphan story.   It really brings issues of race, philosophy, family, and love into a different light. 

For more info & to watch the film online: http://www.familyportraitthefilm.com/story/

To keep up with the kids stories and news on the documentary: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Family-Portrait-in-Black-and-White/115413608526324
(I love this, it really makes the family real because there are updates… like photos of one of the boys being hosted this summer!)

Trailer on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OvzGzdXVprk 
(and shared below)

And like the video says at the end of the credits…
“Please consider becoming Summer Hosts to Eastern European Orphans in your community”!!!

Disclaimer – I have not received any compensation for writing this review.

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