Family portaits: an interview with filmmaker Julia Invanova.
Trans-racial adoption in Russia. Dating tourism in the Ukraine. Compulsory marriage in Canada. These divergent, unrelated topics might seem like an odd array of subjects on which to base a career. But for Vancouver-based filmmaker Julia Ivanova, whose feature-length documentaries tackle these diverse topics with generous sensitivity, chronicling stories of love and connection across borders is a natural impulse and one with which she's become increasingly skilled.
Along with her entire family--brother Boris, with whom she frequently collaborates, and her parents, husband and daughter--Ivanova immigrated to Canada in 1995. As she tells it, the Chechen war was going the wrong way politically, and after the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the film industry. Though she studied producing at Moscow's Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, she had no luck finding film work in Canada. Initially, she worked as an information officer at an embassy.
In 1997, after securing a job as an adoption coordinator, Ivanova became interested in making a film about adoption. In the Soviet Union, adoption was a secretive process.
"We never knew children who were adopted in the Soviet Union," she says, and people went to great lengths to conceal their family makeup. "Families faked pregnancies and claimed they had biological children," she explains. When she began meeting adoptive parents as part of her new job, she was struck not only by the openness of the process but by the adoptive parents themselves.
"I was amazed by how wonderful and generous the people were. Their ability to love a child who was not their biological child was something I admired, and I wanted to tell the world how great they are," she explains.
Inspired by her discovery, she began work on her first film, From Russia, For Love, which she wrote, directed and produced entirely on her own. Following two Canadian families going through the international adoption process in Russia, Ivanova filmed their initial adoption journeys and later returned to explore how adoption had changed the families' lives.
One family had returned to Russia to adopt their daughter's brother, only to find that the children had eight more siblings divided amongst several orphanages. Without exploiting the families' difficulties or sensationalizing the adoptive parents, Ivanova was able to capture the details of their stories.
Several friends helped her edit the film, and in 2001 her work finally paid off. The film was picked up for distribution and eventually shown on TV in 26 countries. At the time, she had no understanding of her own breakthrough success.
"I had no idea it was such a glorious beginning," she recalls.
Being a transplant herself, Ivanova credits her outsider status as a huge advantage for her work. "When I work with Canadian subjects, the people I film are never intimidated by me. I speak English worse than they do. They can feel more confident and comfortable because I never pose a threat."
Working with her brother Boris, Ivanova went on to make several more successful films about adoption and relationships across borders. One of her recent works, Family Portrait in Black and White, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to be named best Canadian film at Hot Docs 2011. The film follows Olga Nenya, a white adoptive mother in the Ukraine who has 16 children; all of them are black. In this predominantly white country with an unwavering fascist stronghold, black children born to single mothers are often abandoned or persecuted.
The film explores Nenya's commitment to "the children no one wants," as well as the contradictions and limitations of her stern, controlling parenting style. Social workers criticize her cramped home, and families abroad offer to adopt some of Nenya's children. She steadfastly refuses to compromise, and Ivanova again delivers a striking film about the complex issues faced by intentionally blended families.
Further exploring the concept of family, Ivanova directed Fatherhood Dreams, a one-hour documentary from 2007 about gay men seeking to become fathers. True Love or Marriage Fraud? The Price of Heartache, a film about immigration and marriage in Canada, aired on the CBC News Network in 2010.
The most entertaining of Ivanova's films to date is Love Translated, a controversial documentary that follows men from Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Sweden on a one-week dating tour in Odessa, Ukraine. The men and women who take part in the week-long liaisons sponsored by Ukrainian dating service Anastasia International often act like caricatures, pandering to gender and cultural norms while trying to seduce and take advantage of one another.
Trading in stereotypes as they seek out potential partners, the men use tired tropes about companionship and Ukrainian family values to explain why they've travelled to find love. The women, dubbed "professional brides" by local skeptics, are often shown running up bills on the men's credit cards before becoming mysteriously unavailable for future phone conversations or dates.
Once again employing compassion for her subjects, Ivanova makes their rather unpolished attempts at finding love seem sympathetic, even relatable. "In a way, the film gives access to the way many men look at women," she explains.
Despite the success of her other films, Ivanova suggests that Love Translated has not been more widely received or accepted into festivals because of the objective way she shows both sides of the story. "I made an honest film," she explains. "I have strong belief in good human nature. I never have mean intentions. I would never exploit people." She believes that because of her uncensored look at dating tourism, some people misunderstand her intentions in making Love Translated.
Regardless of her own discomfort with elements of the tour, Ivanova explains that she was true to her role as an objective observer. "I was upset that these men liked younger women to wear short skirts and heels. I wear pants all the time," she says to explain her hesitation. But, she says, "It really upset me when I realized those elements are that important to the story. We can deny and rebel as women against the value of age and sexy dressing. I am upset that it matters. But it does matter. So as a filmmaker, I show that it matters, despite the fact that it upsets me."
Today, she sees a shortage of opportunities for new filmmakers. Fewer outlets are available for selling documentary films, and producers have to work twice as hard to be noticed. Back when From Russia, For Love was released, Ivanova says, "It was possible to make [and sell] one-off films," meaning non-serial documentary films. "Thanks to the people who worked back then, especially at CBC's The Passionate Eye, we got started. There were many television stations that would show such films," she said. But today she believes the documentary market has shrunk by 70 percent, focusing instead on reality shows and series. "The way I started would be a highly unlikely way to start your career today," she laments.
In the future, Ivanova would like to return to subjects like adoption and immigration and to make films about other marginalized families. Because of her childhood in the Soviet Union, she shies away from political films and says she'll never make anything that could be construed as propaganda. "I am not interested in those things," she says. "I believe documentary is supposed to show the world the way it is."