Pastor Crocodile, or Gennadiy Mokhnenko, is a man with a life-time achievement, leading the biggest children’s home in the former USSR with a base in Mariupol Ukraine. What Mokhnenko does is exemplary no doubt. How he does it is perhaps more questionable: the priest snatches young drug addicts from the street, and takes away wives from their husbands and children from their mothers. But he does so because no one else takes responsibility for or helps these people. He puts them in his children’s home, into a psychiatric ward, or the hospital if necessary. He tries to find new families for homeless orphans, or old family members lost. And, since taking on his calling to support the vulnerable, he and his wife have adopted 32 children themselves. In the award-winning Almost Holy film-maker Steve Hoover has traced Mokhnenko’s work over the last decade, creating a documentary that pays equal attention to Mokhnenko, his protégés and the run-down environment they find themselves in.
Throughout Almost Holy, Mokhnenko is keen on making his voice heard. He not only talks to those he protects, but also with politicians, on talk shows, he preaches and leads demonstrations. Interwoven with these flashes of civic action in a post-Soviet country struggling with independence, we see some of the fates the pastor deals with every day: there’s a little boy, 10 or 12 maybe, who keeps coming back and running away from Mokhnenko’s children’s home Republic Pilgrim, struggling with severe drug addiction. The last time we see him, he lies in an open coffin.
Then there’s a mentally disabled, deaf Roma woman, found in a decrepit hut at the outskirts of the city. She lives with a man who abuses her in exchange for taking her in. We meet a little half-orphaned boy, who lives with Mokhnenko. His addict-father promises to take him back, but dies a couple of months later, without having visited his son again. And there’s a little girl, whose mother and grandmother prostitute themselves for vodka, living with dozens of cats in a desolate farm before Mokhnenko steps in. Destruction is everywhere, and Mokhnenko and his helpers work against it with impressive efficiency. Even though he isn’t a typical pastor, unafraid of using his hand (or fists) when necessary, Almost Holy makes clear Mokhnenko’s intentions are of the best – and that his results have improved the lives of many.
Mokhnenko’s tough but kind. He understands the problems of his society and, rather than becoming disillusioned about the lack of state support, takes matters in his own hands. Yet he also has a desperately naïve view of the EU as an island of democracy, wishing Ukraine to be moving towards it at a time when political upheaval in the country is escalating. At the end of the film, the war he’s been dreading has come to Mariupol, threatening not only his lifework but also the actual lives of his family and people under his care.
At this point in the documentary, we’ve moved from roughly-shot footage of Pastor Crocodile on ‘night raids’ and images of hyper-masculinity where Mokhnenko or his sons press weights, to ethereal shots in slow motion, accompanied by Ukrainian folk song. The composition parallels the dramatic life stories we encounter with the escalations of conflict in Ukraine. Yet the more slow-motion footage and shots of empty beaches or over-filled graveyards we encounter, the more Almost Holy seems to ram home the despair prevalent in Mariupol – even though this is perfectly apparent in the documentary footage itself. Nonetheless, Hoover’s film is impressive, not least for its fascinating protagonist, strong and positive in the face almost any situation, and driven to improve his city and country, especially for the next generation. Better still, the film manages to integrate Mokhnenko’s aims into a socio-political background reaching back to the USSR, thus mediating between narrow and wider viewpoints that create an impressive record of social struggle in the Ukraine today.
Steve Hoover’s Almost Holy (Curzon Articifical Eye, 2016) is available in cinemas and on-demand from 19 August. For details or to watch a trailer from the film, please click on the logo below.