‘Almost Holy’: Tribeca Review

Crocodile Gennadiy - H 2015
John Pope/Animal Media Group

Crocodile Gennadiy - H 2015

A thought-provoking portrait of a vigilante savior.

Steve Hoover’s documentary profiles a pastor who uses controversial methods to help drug-addicted street kids in Ukraine.

Like any self-respecting, self-righteous vigilante, Gennadiy Mokhnenko harbors no doubt when he says, “I don’t need permission to do good deeds.” The Ukrainian pastor is well known on his home turf not just for his rehabilitation center for drug-addicted kids, but for the unceremonious night raids he conducts to scoop them off te streets. By turns off-putting and charismatic, he makes for a compelling subject in Almost Holy, the sophomore documentary by Steve Hoover, who chronicled another figure committed to helping children in Blood Brother

With its strong central character and personal perspective on the region’s ongoing conflict, the handsomely shot, sometimes harrowing doc is sure to find theatrical opportunities after its Tribeca bow.  (The film screened at the festival and was reviewed under its original title, Crocodile Gennadiy.) The imprimatur of Terrence Malick as an executive producer won’t hurt.

Hoover moves back and forth between material he shot over the past few years and archival footage of the self-styled savior, of which there’s no shortage. Mokhnenko’s activities in the city of Mariupol, where in 2000 he founded the Pilgrim Republic rehab facility, have been amply chronicled on television news. Touching briefly on criticism of Mokhnenko, the film notes Wikipedia complaints about his thirst for power and fame.

Questions about Mokhnenko’s methods are implicit in his every action, and Hoover lets them speak for themselves, whether the Pilgrim founder is working a crowd, using a backsliding kid as a warning to his peers or staging a photo op in hopes of airtime on CNN. A talk show host accuses him of the obvious: “You take the law into your own hands.” For the pastor, that assessment is beside the point. The gist of the matter is that “you can’t just walk past a kid living on the street.”

As he battles pharmacies that sell codeine and other opiates to youngsters, Mokhnenko readily admits that Pilgrim sometimes functions as a kind of prison or hospital. The film shows his program filling a social-service vacuum left by the Soviet Union’s collapse. He provides a home for strung-out kids who would otherwise be harassed by cops and then released back to the streets. Many of them are shockingly young. Some have been on their own since age four, and have no idea who their parents are or where they’re from. In one intake interview at Pilgrim, a boy picks a new name, encouraged by Mokhnenko, himself the child of alcoholics.

The kids’ wretched stories, captured in bits and pieces, are tough viewing. A teen girl is found on a highway, in horrifyingly bad shape. There’s an encounter with a rural girl who explains matter-of-factly that her father hanged himself. In a shed, the pastor discovers a deaf, mentally ill young woman who has been imprisoned by an older man. She cries for the baby he took away. Sometimes his rescues are to no avail; the kids return to the streets and "freedom."

There are light moments too, not to mention Mokhnenko’s charmingly broken English. He enjoys rest-stop hot dogs and coffee as a “piece of the West” and chuckles happily over a Soviet-era cartoon about a crocodile named Gennadiy. “All time he save somebody,” enthuses a man for whom heroism is essential to his identity.

Hoover doesn’t get into the nitty-gritty of the kids’ detox and rehabilitation, but Mokhnenko’s compassion is as evident as his self-regard, and inextricable from his sense of a moral imperative. The orphanage he runs educates and cares for its residents, and he becomes a father figure to them — in many cases literally adopting kids. His wife, who clearly plays a major role in the enterprise, appears onscreen only briefly, barely able to contain her feelings about children who are suffering.

Inevitably, Crocodile Gennadiy becomes a film about war, as the clash between Ukraine and pro-Russia rebels zeros in on Mariupol in early 2015. Trying to keep a young man out of that war, Mokhnenko offers a wise observation: “They’ll change the world maps 50 times.”

It’s one of many intimate exchanges that cinematographer John Pope frames tellingly. He’s also attuned to the larger setting, from its industrial skyline and night streets to its patches of forest. The restrained, nearly atonal score by Atticus RossLeopold Ross and Bobby Krlic suits the atmosphere of crimes and secrets being brought into the light, and of lives in the balance.

Production company: Animal
Director: Steve Hoover
Producer: Danny Yourd
Executive producers: Terrence Malick, Nicolas Gonda, Michael Killen, Kathy Dziubek, Jim Kreitzburg
Director of photography: John Pope
Editor: Steve Hoover
Composers: Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross, Bobby Krlic

No rating, 97 minutes