Almost Holy

Almost Holy

MPAA Rating: R | Rating: ★★★½
Release year: 2016
Genre: Documentary, Foreign, Spiritual Director: Steve Hoover

Imagine the premise for the documentary The Overnighters, but instead of a local pastor helping blue collar workers during an economic crisis, this is a local pastor helping drug-addicted homeless children in a living hell. Such is Almost Holy, a documentary centered on the ministry of Gennadiy Mokhnenko, a Ukrainian Pentecostal pastor who runs a youth rehabilitation center in his town, Mariupol. Living in the post-Soviet era of political and economic collapse, scores of young people found themselves addicted to drugs and alcohol. Gennadiy literally drags them off the street and into his Pilgrim Republic center in order to get them sober, a sort of vigilante youth worker both cleaning up both the streets and the lives of young people.

Blunt, passionate, and clearly not camera-shy, Gennadiy comes across as a mix between Rachel Cooper from The Night of the Hunter and an MMA fighter. The film repeatedly cuts to a Russian stop-motion cartoon about a crocodile–also named Gennadiy–who takes care of children while trying to outwit his foe, a cranky old woman bent on deceiving and harming kids. The parallels are apt, and Gennadiy (the man) often refers to himself as “Pastor Crocodile.” He’s a family man, married with children of his own, as well as a dozen adoptees he wholly considers his kids. Filmmaker Steve Hoover’s seems less interested on critiquing or analyzing Gennadiy’s motives or efforts, instead simply showing the grim realities of what the pastor is facing in Ukraine. And “grim” doesn’t quite suffice to describe the situation–abuse, addiction, sexual deviance, poverty, illiteracy and lack of education, abandonment from parents, and a broken justice system are all present, with very little resources for solving any of these problems. Why is Gennadiy doing what he’s doing? Because nobody else is.

The film is very loosely structured, almost like a string of montages and scenes somewhat held together chronologically by a centering element of Gennadiy preaching to a women’s prison. During the course of his sermon/pep talk to the prisoners, the film cuts to footage of the stories he is describing: the death of a young boy due to blood poisoning; a deaf, mentally-ill woman being sexually abused by her suitor, living in a shack; a young girl Gennadiy takes from her alcoholic mother due to neglect and abuse. The chosen style of blurred, shallow focus and montage-like edits make it all feel a bit scattered, like a fever dream or living nightmare. The tilt-shift blurred edges of many scenes is an interesting artistic choice, one which I honestly found distracting and unnecessary. Watching Almost Holy essentially ruined the rest of my day–seeing such depravity and real-life horrors, many of which involve children, is simply heartbreaking. The film concludes with more of Ukraine’s social unrest as Russia invades Crimea and Gennadiy’s own city becomes a center for violence and revolution. When the entire country seems to be falling apart, how does one do the right thing for one’s community?

But is Gennadiy doing the right thing? His tactics don’t seem to go outside of the boundaries of the law. This isn’t Machine Gun Preacher; he isn’t killing anyone or enacting full-on vigilante justice. He often simply confronts people with the depravity of their choices, shaming them into repentance, telling them, “We all see you, and we’re sick of it.” (One of his social protests calling for the removal of a controversial drug from pharmacies was called “Sick of It.”) For instance, he drags the boy with blood poisoning into the middle of a crowded room of other youth, a living example of the destructive nature of drug addiction. In another scene, he confronts pharmacists who have been selling medications illegally to youth addicts, calling them out on their behavior and threatening legal action if they do not stop. With Hoover’s cameras present, they wear their shame on their downcast countenances. In yet another confrontation, Gennadiy takes a man who has been soliciting children for sexual favors and drags him into the police station, the man bleeding from his face at the treatment of Gennadiy and his companions. The accused man points out that Gennadiy is a pastor–he’s supposed to be holy, not bashing people’s faces in. Gennadiy only quips, “almost holy.” Is this the right course of action? Hoover doesn’t comment, leaving the filmgoer to make their own decision about the character and practices of Gennadiy. Pastor, father, vigilante, social justice advocate: in a world of injustice, perhaps he’s just a good-hearted crocodile.

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