‘Almost Holy’: A Controversial Mission to Save Kids in Ukraine

Almost Holy can’t make sense of the perpetual trauma facing kids in Mariupol, Ukraine. But it can show the battle waged against it.

“You’ll pay with your life unless you change your fate.” Gennadiy Mokhnenko looks hard at the child before him, a gaze that’s riveting and unnerving, effects confirmed by a close-up of the child’s unnerved face. “As usual, we have to intervene in a kid’s vagabond lifestyle early on, before they get hooked on drugs or contract AIDS,” Mokhnenko explains for the camera. “You can’t walk past a kid on the street, you just can’t. And yet, most people do.

Mokhnenko’s mission is a complicated one, as you come to see right away in Almost Holy. A pastor in Mariupol, Ukraine, he claims access to truths and the right to act. “Sometimes, I feel myself like special service,” he says in broken English while riding in a van at the start of Steve Hoover’s documentary, the frame in motion with his bumpy ride. “Sometimes my children rehab center work like prison. Sometimes work like hospital, sometimes we must work like police.”

The camera cuts from Gennadiy to a girl riding with him, her left eye and upper lip swollen. Silent as he speaks, she stares ahead, away from the camera, nighttime traffic lights blurry in the window behind her. This child is one of many Gennadiy means to rescue.

At night, he reports, he heads into the streets of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, where he conducts “raids”, scooping up kids from drug dens, alleys, houses where he’s heard reports of abuses. “Many, many hundred nights,” he says, “I was in street in middle of the night, many story like this. I hear from many people, ‘You must build church building, you must preach on Sunday, it’s not your job.’ But I ask, ‘Who will do it?’”

Who will do it? Modeling himself on a Soviet cartoon he liked to watch as a child, Gena the Crocodile, Gennadyi declares his righteous intent and resists complaints about his aggressive methods. The film follows as this vigilante knocks on doors, pushes his way past non-sober adults, beats up dealers and delivers them to the cops, or, sometimes, pushes angry or tearful children into his van. “We ambushed here many times and dragged kids out,” he observes during one raid, the camera rocking as it tries to keep up.

“I don’t want to go to Pilgrim”, asserts one young boy. Nevertheless, he’s on his way to the Pilgrim Republic Children’s Rehabilitation Center, which Gennadyi founded in 2000 and is funded by the city. Here the lighting is harsh, the hallways institutional yellow. The walls are pasted with photos of kids come and gone, their faces hollow, their arms raked with track marks.

If the pictures are heartbreaking, the kids in person are confused, unsure of whom to trust, understandably angry. Many are also addicts, which means that a place to sleep and food to eat won’t necessarily save them.

Still, Gennadyi essays that first step. He calls the children members of his family, and brings each into his office so he can take notes on their experiences and encourage them to stay, to try to start again. “People must have a normal life,” he tells the camera. “They must have home, they must have work, they must have friends, they must have family, they must have food.”

Plainly aware of how media affect perception and funding, Gennadyi organizes local protests (“Sick of it”, he has citizens chanting against drug dealers), appears on television interviews and talk shows. Arguing with an opponent of his brutality and lack of legal backing, he faces the camera as he scoffs, “You decide what’s right and wrong, and despite that, God strengthened my fist in the process.” Here he pauses as the audience applauds.

No one can argue with Gennadyi’s rousing effectiveness a performer, even as his exhortations can be both galvanizing and haranguing. The film is structured around his address at a women’s prison, where his listeners, uniformed and subdued, become tearful as she says, “I want to ask you all for forgiveness on behalf of the men who promised love, faithfulness, affection, but later spat on you, wiped their feet, did awful things and went on with their lives.” Framing this apology with a memory the pastor shares during an interview, the film tracks a trajectory from the fights between his parents, their drinking, and his fear that they’d be dead rather than merely passed out, to the crusader he’s become.

In turn, Gennadyi uses story to connect with the survivors he discovers. He pounds his way into the hutch where Luba lives with Sasha: deaf and unable to speak, she’s frightened by the raid, unable to say quite what’s happened to her. With the help of a colleague who knows how to sign, Gennadyi learns that their relationship has been troubling, to say the least.

As he removes Luba to Pilgrim, he walks Sasha outside, his arm around his shoulders: “You took an invalid without any papers and secretly fucked her. You should have brought her to me.” Sasha doesn’t register what he’s done wrong, insisting that he prayed to God (in church, no less) and asked for a deaf-mute woman, just before he found her. Gennadyi undertakes to do what Luba most wants, which is to find the baby Sasha gave up for adoption; from there, the pastor says, the two adults can make their own decisions.

The film can’t make sense of such perpetual trauma, and it goes on to show that no legal recourses exist for the victims, either. That all of this takes place during ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine — indicated in brief television reports that provide propulsive, frightening context — only complicates the very idea of social order. The kids see adults behaving badly and can only plead for sanity.

At one point, a panel of Pilgrim children create their own televised missive for Putin, a ten-year-old speaker flanked by two boys holding guns and another wearing boxing gloves, pounding his fist on the table as he insists, “Stop the conflict immediately, otherwise, we as a country of former street kids will be forced to commence our actions.”

As they perform, Gennadyi looks on with pride and affection, seeing in them some version of himself, survivors who can see the world around them, who mean to save it. As distressing as this image must be — kids with guns, vowing violence — it’s a product of their lives as much as it is a possible response, a logic in motion. The same can be said of Gennadyi, disturbing as he is.

Who will do it? Gennadyi turns to Dostoyevsky to explain. A close-up shows a marked-up page of The Brothers Karamazov, as Gennadyi reads, “I’m not rebelling against God, I simply don’t accept his world.” This world, Crocodile Gennadyi observes, offers precious few options.

RATING 8 / 10