Gennadiy Mokhnenko is a two-fisted Pentacostalist pastor who sees himself as a character he remembers from a children’s cartoon.
He is “Gennadiy the Crocodile,” friend to children everywhere, and a friend with teeth.
Steve Hoover’s documentary “Almost Holy” follows this Ukrainian force of nature as he rescues child addicts from the streets, from those exploiting and abusing them, from a broken disinterested “system” and (ex-Soviet) culture and from the very pharmacists who sell them the drugs that take their youth, their health (some have lost limbs) and often, their lives.
In broken English, Mokhnenko describes the street kids of his city, Mariupol, Ukraine. And then he fearlessly shows you what he’s doing about them.
His methods are heavy-handed — kicking in doors, dragging kids away from their “vagabond” lives. For a pastor, he’s pretty blunt and foul-mouthed. He confronts sexual abusers with profane frankness. He shames pharmacists. On camera.
“I hope my life leaves a mark,” he says. And he is. He is making his corner of the world a tiny bit better, emptying the streets and Ukrainian version of “crack houses” of kids, intervening in the most “Scared Straight” ways.
“Why should I blow a fortune on your unlikely recovery?” he barks at one boy. Some, he gets adopted. Many, he takes into his own family. His wife Lena will bring tears to your eyes as you see both the overwhelming burden their family faces, and the unbending resolve they both have to do this work.
Hoover (“Blood Brothers”) gives voice to the controversy surrounding these “Pilgrim Republic” orphanages, the laws Pastor Crocodile breaks. And he lets us see how this work has been impacted by the Russian invasion of Crimea and assault on the rest of Ukraine. Not every child can be saved. Many want to escape back to the seeming horrors of their old lives.
Structurally, the film skips back and forth, from the “present” — a long cautionary speech at a women’s prison — to the recent past, with interventions, “raids,” counseling sessions — to the more distant past, when Mokhnenko got his start and stirred up enough controversy to wind up (repeatedly) on Ukrainian TV.
That doesn’t help the movie’s coherence or impact.
But this Ukrainian Crocodile Preacher makes an arresting subject, someone you’ll want to meet just to hear his story and see the past that put him on the path to being his country’s “Catcher in the Rye,” saving children from an ugly world and a doomed future.
MPAA Rating:R for disturbing content involving drugs and alcohol, sexual references and language
Cast: Gennadiy Mokhnenko
Credits: Written and directed by Steve Hoover. An Orchard release.
Running time: 1:49