Director: Steve Hoover
Cast: Gennadiy Mokhnenko
Watch Almost Holy online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema
Almost Holy is the very definition of “hard-hitting documentary”. Within its 96 minute running time, director Steve Hoover delivers gut-punch after gut-punch of pure, unadulterated horror. It is the study of one man, but is also a study of lives lived in the Ukraine; an unsettling, nightmarish vision of hell on Earth.
Terrence Malick is one of the producers, and this shares with Malick’s work something of the disjointed, impressionistic style he’s famous for. Nor does it have a conventional narrative drive, requiring some work from the viewer. It’s set against a constant, rumbling, bass-heavy industrial soundtrack, which exacerbates the feeling of impending doom.
The film follows the charismatic pastor Gennadiy ‘Crocodile’ Mokhnenko as he attempts to make life better for the residents of Mariupol. It’s no easy task. Having founded Pilgrim Republic, a children’s rehabilitation centre in 2000, we join him as he travels the city, finding pre-pubescent heroin addicts living in manholes and ushering them into the back of his van to take them back to the centre, where he will try to get them off the drugs, give them an education, and instil some hope in them that life can get better. He has about him something of the pied piper of the Grimm fairy tale, in this case carting children away from harm. The fable-esque element is highlighted by the documentary constantly cutting to the animation from which he got his nickname ‘crocodile’ – a famous cartoon character in the Ukraine, and, like Mokhnenko, working to save children from the clutches of evil.
The children Mokhnenko saves have sores in their necks, swollen purple feet, and arms that are blue from injecting heroin. Hoover doesn’t flinch from the horror, and includes some deeply unsettling imagery. On a split screen, we are shown footage of a young boy, bright-eyed and clear-skinned on one side, and huddled, blue-lipped, struggling for breath on the floor on the other. We cut to his funeral, his small body covered by a white sheet. Later, a small girl describes matter-of-factly how she found her father’s body, after he hanged himself with a TV cord. There are lingering camera shots of people’s faces, as they quietly contemplate their pain. Stories of addiction, sexual exploitation, and despair lurk behind each scene Mokhnenko, and the viewer, encounters.
Mokhnenko himself is extremely charismatic, and presented as a kind of modern-day hero, battling the forces of not only the drug dealers, abusers and exploiters, but also an uncaring bureaucracy that allows such abuses to continue. The slogan for the protest group he fronts is “If you’re selling drugs, we’re going for you”. Hoover follows him as he goes into pharmacies to publicly shame the people who sell drugs to addicts under the counter. He is left with no choice, it seems, than direct, sometimes violent, action. As he drags a man who is accused of abusing kids for money and drugs into jail, the bruises on the accused’s face are apparent, and it is clear Mokhnenko is not above brute force and bending the law. Mokhnenko appears on televised debate programmes in which he’s challenged about his actions, and the diocese criticise him for searching for fame and seeking power, but his vigilante-ism is portrayed as intervention made necessary by the failure of the state to protect the vulnerable, and it is powered by a pure, unadulterated rage at the system.
Though dealing with the first 12 years of this millennium, the film feels like some relic of a dark and distant past, and much of the shock when watching it is that not only is it contemporary, but that things undoubtedly got even worse for the subjects after the film crew left, as war brings other dangers to the people trying to navigate already difficult and complicated lives. The Ukraine is depicted as a kind of living hell in which people must reside in their own personal horrors. It’s no easy watch, but it does give an insight into a world that is, in fact, not so very far, in time and geography, from our own.