Almost Holy: Holy Hero, by Ian Brill
“So sad, but it’s Ukraine.” Pastor Gennadiy Mokhnenko says this late in the film but it could apply to almost any moment in the documentary Almost Holy. Mokhnenko runs a youth rehab center in the Mariupol region of Ukraine. The documentary takes place during the last few years, but Mariupol still shows all the scars of a post-Soviet collapse. Children get on drugs early. Adults either don’t care or try to take advantage. The state’s resources are insufficient. Mokhnenko and his clinic is the only salvation for these children. The situation is so dire that Mokhnenko doesn’t wait for children to come to him. Director Steve Hoover and his crew join Mokhnenko as he hits on the streets and finds children and rescues them from a life of tragedy. Mokhnenko is an almost Batman-like figure in his (non-violent) (mostly) vigilante methods. Much like the recent slate of superhero films, Almost Holy explores the cost of giving your life to heroism.
Hoover’s filmmaking is startling in how deep it brings you into Mokhnenko’s story. It’s apparent in terms of content. The cameras are there as Mokhnenko rescues a deaf woman from a rapist keeping her captive in his home. The pastor, victim, and offender are all on film. That’s just one of a few moments where you may be startled by what is happening on screen. But the film isn’t only concerned by the most dramatic parts of Mokhnenko’s life. You see his home life with his family. Not just his wife and biological children, but the many he children he and his wife adopted as part of their rehabilitation. The footage that Hoover captures is complimented by news footage chronicling Mokhnenko’s career and his controversial place in Mariupol society.
The filmmaking techniques meet the dramatic heights of Mokhnenko’s story. The film keeps you hooked, despite how disturbing some moments are to watch. The film threads three different motifs. The first is a Rankin-Bass-like children’s show that Mokhnenko grew up loving, about a friendly crocodile also named Gennadiy. Also throughout is Mokhnenko’s speech to a woman’s prison. The speech allows Mokhenko to discuss his life and method in a far more cinematic way than just addressing the film as a talking head. The most ominous motif is the use of news footage chronicling Russian’s preparation to invade Ukraine in 2014. That event comes to a head in the film’s last leg, and it may be Mokhnenko’s greatest test.
Mokhnenko himself is another reason why Almost Holy is so compulsively watchable. Speaking in both Russian and English, he retains good humor and a positive outlook. He enjoys sharing his story in a warm way, never narcissist. He gets serious when the situation calls for it. The film is at its most fascinating when it explores how much the work gets to him. He seems to live a well-balanced life, despite the circumstances. But as the situation in Ukraine gets harder, you see the toll it takes on him.
Almost Holy shows the audience the true efforts and cost of heroism but also, with a truly charismatic character in Mokhnenko, the heart.