A Family Portait in Black and White
Julia Ivanova / Ukraine
Between her (now grown) biological offspring and the dozens of kids she’s taken in from the foster care system, Olga Nenya is now the mother to 27 children. Most of the kids are biracial, their parents were African immigrants who have disappeared, been deported or lost their custody rights within the cruel bureacracies of a post-Soviet burg. Many of them were put into the system at an old enough age to dimly recall their biological parents and for the most part seem to have adjusted to their new family structure.
The film opens depicting the multi-culti clan like a bucolic Bennetton ad -- children playing with goats, harvesting fresh vegetables and always smiling all the while being effusive and adorable. A town magistrate even presents an award to the group for Olga’s Promethean efforts towards improving the lives of disadvantaged children.
But quickly something more sinister is revealed. Olga's need for control and her personal racial biases, filtered through lingering affections for the old Soviet culture of discipline and conformity -- is slamming hard against some of the adolescents’ ideas and expectations for their own future. Instead of seeing her rundown home (purchased with money from a British charity which years later still has no hot water or indoor plumbing) as a launching point, she views her it as a means for rebuilding a new society. In Olga’s vision they live simply, celebrating cooperative work and diversity. But from the children’s more modern take on things, this life represents constant menial labor and arbitrary governance which renders many of them fundamentally joyless and unable to imagine an autonomous life outside of Olga’s strict control.
Using the lack of oversight in the foster care system and the virulent racism of smalltown Ukraine as a shield from criticism, Olga blocks potential adoptions for three of the children, constantly belittles anyone who exerts a sense of independence, openly chooses favorites and even institutionalizes one boy who requires too much discipline, telling him he’s too slow a reader to live at home.
Filmed over the course of three years, first-time filmmaker Julia Ivanova deftly creates and subverts expectations for the viewer while drawing out complicated emotional processes from Olga’s children as they sit at the crossroad between a (truncated) childhood and limited adulthood.
The Green Wave
Ali Samadi Ahadi / Iran
In Iran’s 2009 election for prime minister reformist candidate (and former president) Mir-Hossein Mousavi squared off against the five-term incumbent Mamoud Ahmadinejad. The internationally reviled Ahmadinejad has long been criticized for political corruption and cow-towing to arch conservative religious clerics within Iran paving the way for Mousavi to run on a simple platform of “respect for different cultural groups, equal rights for women and more democracy”.
Subjects in two different Sundance selections this year, The Green Wave and An African Election cite the international wave of optimism created by the election of Barack Obama in the United States. In the days leading up to the election, people who describe themselves as apolitical or completely disenchanted with the democratic process talk about the joyful reinvigoration they felt for the future of their country. And even elderly people began to feel rays of hope break though years of well-earned cycnicism about a fair and open democratic process.
Despite a state-controlled press and heavily censored internet acccess, the enthusiasm gap began to swell as the election drew closer. In the days leading up to voting there was an unprecedented outpouring of support for Mousavi. Thousands of young people turned perfunctory public endorsement exercises into massive rallies, volunteered at polling locations and adorned themselves with the green armbands that would come to name their movement “the green wave”. This identification with the color green (which represents vitality and progress in the Iranian flag) also become an internet meme when non-Iranians tinted their Twitter avatars to show support for the heinous fallout of the election.
Immediately the election returns didn’t pass the smell test for Mousavi supporters. The official results were far off from what exit polls had indicated and in some cases didn't even accurately reflect basic population data about certain districts. Young people once again took to the streets, this time with shock, grief and rage. And as they did Foreign reporters were forcibly removed (including Iraq in Fragments director and MacArthur Genius fellow James Longley), cell phone communications were shut down and private militia groups (commonly used as auxilliary police forces) were dispatched to beat, apprehend and eventually gun down protestors.
A recent United Nations Development Programme study reported that over 60% of Iran's population is under the age of thirty and reflective of its youth and vigor their street protests are massive, energetic and immediate. It's fitting that depictions of their struggle would be told with a mix of old and new techniques. The Green Wave uses standard interviews with journalists, diplomats, clerics and lawyers and intercuts it with animated footage of the surreptitious blog and Twitter posts made during the protests. There is also a patchwork of cell phone video footage that had to be physically smuggled out of the country after all internet communication had been shut down.
Most people have grown somewhat inured to massive human rights violations as a matter of being able to function in our current reality. There are more conflicts than ever and our ability to quickly transmit images, video and raw data worldwide hasn't had the antiseptic impact we'd like to believe it's capable of. Animation is so strongly associated with children's entertainment, there's a sense in watching the footage that nothing too terrible could happen and it helps the viewers resist the urge to look away.
The haphazard cell phone footage (which appears to have been often shot from neighboring apartment windows but often also from a groundview) of police beating (badges removed) beating unarmed protestors is reminiscent of the 1991 Rodney King beatings that led to violent riots in Los Angeles and has remained a touchstone of racial animosity in America ever since. Many of the heinous acts committed by the Iranian government now exist in the permamenent record of the internet, The Green Wave (and hopefully many more like it to come) weave together personal narratives that provide more understanding of both the tumult and the stakes for people living under a repressive regime.