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Review: White Mama


- The director of My Friend Boris Nemtsov, Zosya Rodkevich, is back with a powerful documentary about a strong woman and her odd but unusually harmonious family in distress

Review: White Mama

Russian filmmaker Zosya Rodkevich, known for My Friend Boris Nemtsov [+see also:
film profile
, has returned with a new film, White Mama [+see also:
interview: Zosya Rodkevich
film profile
, co-directed and edited by Evgenia Ostanina. The film, which has just world-premiered in the Krakow Film Festival's documentary competition, is one of the more difficult documentaries seen recently (which is saying something, considering the opulent supply of such fare), as it deals with an odd but unusually harmonious family that comes under a huge strain with a new addition to the overcrowded household. 

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The titular lady is Alina, a Moscow woman who has six dark-skinned children from a relationship with an Ethiopian man, their ages varying from around eight to 23. She is now married to the sympathetic, wise and loving Sergei, and as they can't have children of their own, they decide to adopt a boy from an orphanage – and no less than one with developmental problems, nine-year-old Daniil.

But before we meet Daniil around half an hour in, we witness the almost incredible dedication of Alina and Sergei to their houseful of children. Not only do they take good care of them, but they have also enrolled them in piano (even managing to fit a pianino into the cramped apartment), sports and ballet classes. Of course, not everything is rosy, but we see a group of people relatively content in their life, and definitely loving and understanding each other, without any physical and almost no verbal aggression or real conflicts. 

Daniil's arrival will change everything. The doctors don't have a clear diagnosis for his disorder, but the boy is aggressive, stubborn, impatient, demanding and spiteful – except during rare moments after he has been through a lot of fighting and quarrelling with the whole family, and has, exhausted, fallen into Alina’s arms to cry.

Alina and Sergei's capacity for patience and love is nigh-on unbelievable, but her children are suffering, and they can see this. The film poses so many questions about dedication, selflessness and selfishness, understanding and intolerance, that it is at times emotionally overwhelming for the viewer. It is also a tough watch aesthetically, with the handheld camera swirling through and around the apartment, or being carried on the street and filming Alina and the kids from a low angle – usually it seems to be Sergei who is operating it, but the closing credits (set against a wobbly, blue VHS-style background) also list Alina Makarovna and Rodkevich as cinematographers.

White Mama is a powerful movie, and the main protagonist is one of the most quietly impressive documentary characters to grace screens in the last year. The film would be easier to digest if it were some 20 minutes shorter, and maybe some trimming in the early stages would have made the gruelling last half-hour in which Alina takes Dominik and Daniil to a fun fair even more impactful.

White Mama is a production by Russia's CHBK Film.

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