"I could never accept that in Eastern Europe, being black is the worst thing that could happen to you."
Documentary filmmaker Julia Ivanova tells TakePart that this incomprehensible prejudice was one of the reasons she made the film, Family Portrait in Black and White.
The documentary looks into the lives of a Ukraine foster family where 16 of the children are black orphans. In the Ukraine, 99.9 percent of the population is white, and racism is rampant. The children's fearless leader is Olga Nenya, a loving yet Stalin-like foster mother.
Being an advocate for international adoption also attracted Julia to Olga Nenya and her brood. Having a daughter of her own, the filmmaker relates personally to the trials and tribulations.
Julia and her brother, Boris, the film's producer, followed the family over the course of three years. "All the children are unbelievable," says Julia. "They’re open, very alive, and there is nothing fake about them."
The 16 black orphans come from white mothers and black fathers. This mix is considered socially unacceptable in the Ukraine. One woman in the film says she doesn't know of anyone who would adopt a black child.
Some of the children's stories will leave you cheering; others will open your eyes and break your heart.
There is 16-year-old Kiril. Nicknamed "Mr. President," he's smart, works hard in school, and is one of the few fosters who dares to argue with Olga.
Their world views clash to the point that today, they have no relations.
Julia says, "It is all very painful. She cannot admit she is wrong at something.They’re both extremely stubborn, and very strong. Nobody will make the first move."
Anya, like several of the other children, spends summers in Italy with a host family. The girl feels she has two mothers, but Olga sees it differently.
Anya was adopted when she turned 18 by her Italian family, and is now working in Italy and very happy.
Andrey's story is the most tragic. At 11 years old, he was sent by authorities to a boarding school for children with special needs. Julia says he is probably dyslexic, but this condition is not diagnosed in the Ukraine.
Andrey also spent time at a psychiatric hospital, again sent by the state for treatment. Since she is not his biological or adoptive mother, Olga has no input in these decisions. The "treatment" might easily be confused with torture.
Julia says when she first met Andrey, "his eyes sparkled." After his stint in the psychiatric ward, she remembers, the sparkle disappeared.
Olga will not adopt out any of the kids before they are 18. She reasons that they already have a family, despite their uncertain future in the Ukraine. However, if a family wanted to adopt Andrey, Julia thinks, "Olga would have allowed it, because she sees what a huge damage has been done to him. Andrey is a child who really needs to be saved."
Family Portrait in Black and White premieres at the Sundance Film Festival in the World Documentary Competition on Sunday, January 23. Here's a trailer.