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Categories: Movie Reviews

Steve Hoover’s doc isn’t all that surprising, but the man it focuses on makes is worth the watch. 

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Almost Holy introduces us to life of Gennadiy Mokhnenko, a larger-than-life character, as he makes his way through the Ukrainian streets of Mariupol, rescuing children and teenage drug addicts. Also known as ‘Pastor Crocodile’, he scours the streets, picking up endangered youths, and often adults, and bringing them back to a shelter he set up called Pilgrim, a safe haven and rehabilitation centre. In this very familiar and unsurprising documentary, we are shown Gennadiy’s great efforts to make a change, but we also see a guy with a saviour-type complex, which at points distracts. His physical presence takes up most of the screen, and the constant self-declarations often interfere with the revelations of the shocking personal stories of the individuals he rescues.      

Gennadiy’s impressive humanitarian efforts encompass an array of extracurricular activities. To add to his pastoral duties, he is also a social worker, law enforcer, local celebrity, public speaker… the list is endless. There is an element of self-grandiosity to him, which actually makes for a funny watch as he bounces from one disturbing incident to the next, like some superhero wannabe. It is a miracle that he doesn’t seem beaten down by it all, or at least from what we can see. This humorous, Rambo-style outlook of his is perhaps a way of keeping things light, possibly providing a protective shield, trying where possible not to take things too seriously with all the negativity and chaos that surrounds him. Similar documentaries such as 2015’s Dreamcatcher manage to convey its message through its protagonist more eloquently. In Dreamcatcher, sex worker advocate Brenda Myers-Powell does a magnificent job of engaging the viewer throughout, and you can see a real empathy for people in her work as a social worker. There was less fanfare and less ostentatiousness compared to Gennadiy in Almost Holy.

All these abandoned kids that Gennadiy deals with on a daily basis seems to be the by-product of the Ukrainian government’s lack of a proper social welfare system, post-Soviet Union era. There are a few stories that are quite disturbing and make for difficult viewing: a mentally disabled young lady who is being sexually abused by her carer, or another lady strung out in the streets trying to escape her husband’s beatings, or the sad incident of young boy poisoned by a bad batch of heroin, who we see suffer in pain for ages to his eventual death. It’s all very real and very tragic, but it does shed light on the severity of the situation. However, it would have been a real bonus to delve deeper into the lives of these people and get their full story, or maybe get to the root of this the uncontrollable drug war. Instead, we are only given a light taste of them, peppered around the film between Gennadiy’s screen time.

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This is director Steve Hoover’s fourth documentary, and kudos to him, it features Terence Malik as executive producer. The documentary is very well-executed, with beautiful hazy shots mixed in with real-cop show-style footage and stunning scenes of the abundant empty urban Soviet landscape, with derelict factories and buildings infested with wild plantation and long empty roads. It provides peaceful and serene filmic fodder, between the mayhem and disturbance of other scenes. There’s a brilliant moment where Gennadiy is giving a talk to a women’s prison: they are all congregated around him in the prison courtyard, a wide bare area all caged up in wire, and the women are all dressed in blue overalls, all of them in tears as Gennadiy narrates his story, detailing all the pain and suffering he has seen.    

Almost Holy follows a frequently-trodden path in terms of documentary-making, and after a while the predictability of it all kicks in. Yet despite all my cynicism, the simple fact is that for whatever reason Gennadiy does what he does, he is doing an amazing thing, and rightly so. He should be applauded.

Almost Holy is out in select cinemas and on demand on August 19th.

Daniel Theophanous

Daniel Theophanous is based in Hackney, London. He studied at Goldsmith College, he is a PR Director at Theo PR and as well an avid Film & TV lover. He organizes the London Fields Free Film Festival.

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Posted on Aug 1, 2016

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