Julia Ivanova got the idea for Family Portrait in Black and White while shooting another project in her native Russia. It happened when she read a newspaper item about Olga Nenya, a foster mother raising 27 mixed-race children in rural Ukraine. The Vancouver filmmaker eventually went back, gathered footage at the woman's rundown home (and elsewhere), and assembled a deeply affecting and subtly complicated look at one extended family.
“Honestly, I spent most of my time getting Olga's trust long before picking up a camera,” Ivanova declared during a conversation earlier this year. “That was the hardest part, because she's a very old-fashioned, autocratic personality. It was very important to me that people don't see Olga as a saint or a villain. She is taking in children no one else in Ukraine will touch. The racism there is unbelievable.”
After we first talked, the filmmaker hit Sundance, where she was the only Canadian—and the only woman—in the 2011 documentary section. And the film subsequently won the best Canadian film award at Toronto's Hot Docs fest. (Dragonslayer, which grabbed the international prize, is here too.)
“We still haven't hit festivals in Europe,” the director said during a recent call before her VIFF screenings (October 8 and 10), which she will attend. “But then there will be 10 festivals within a month! I've been to many festivals in the past and have come to believe that Vancouver is one of the biggest and best. And we have a very engaged audience.”
After Vancouver, Ivanova will try to undo a snag in her itinerary.
“We were not given a grant to travel by Canada Council because we're not viewed as an independent film—simply because I have a producer and because it has some sales for TV. This is how we were able to make it in the first place.”
Portrait was produced with younger brother Boris Ivanov and Sally Jo Fifer through Interfilms Productions. Their father was well known as programming director of the Moscow International Film Festival. And in the latter years of the Soviet empire, Ivanova studied at the prestigious Russian Film Institute. After school, she worked at the Canadian embassy in Moscow.
Moving here in 1995 rekindled her need to make movies. She worked as an adoption coordinator, documenting this post–Cold War process from both sides. The resulting From Russia, for Love was shown widely at festivals and on public TV. I Want a Woman in 2003 looked at the travails of immigrant men looking for love in new places. Four years later, Fatherhood Dreams spent time with gay men struggling through challenging adoptions. Last year's Love Translated followed western men travelling to an Odessa resort to meet women via an online dating service, with entertaining (for us) results.
“When I was at school,” Ivanova, now 46, recalls, “I spent a lot of time on other people's sets. And there were just as many terrible fiction films being made there as you would find here or in Hollywood. I thought, even then: ‘If I'm going to take all the trouble to make a movie, I want it to be about something real.' ”
Watch the trailer for Family Portrait in Black and White.