By Linc Leifeste | May 20, 2016
Director: Steve Hoover
Writer: Steve Hoover
Starring: Gennadiy Mokhnenko
To hell with Marvel and DC Comics! Seriously, a pox on both your houses. Every single one of us should be, by now, completely burned out on this glut of superhero movies being endlessly forced down our throats. And if you don’t believe me, you should invest an hour and a half of your time to go see Steve Hoover’s endlessly fascinating new documentary, Almost Holy. The film’s charismatic star, Ukranian pastor Gennadiy Mokhnenko, is something of a superhero himself. While he doesn’t wear tights, he does occasionally slip on his clerical collar and though he’s not gifted with super powers, he’s clearly a man of superhuman will and conviction, and Hoover and crew strikingly document his larger than life presence. If the film is flawed, and that’s debatable, it’s in its lack of overt criticism of Mokhnenko and his methods. There’s really no organized voice presenting a counterargument to the man and his methods, so some will likely come away feeling as though Hoover’s treatment borders on hero worship. But for those who think critically about media narratives, the director does an admirable job of subtly, repeatedly prodding the viewer to question the image of Mokhnenko with which we’re being presented, and in the process to truly ponder the responsibilities and rights of those gifted with the burdens of “special powers” and just how much oversight they should have placed on them in society.
Mokhnenko grew up in the Soviet Union, a scarred product of alcoholic parents and a communist government he clearly found deeply flawed. But his city of Mariupol and country of Ukraine, post-Soviet collapse, has become a hellish chaos of collapsed societal and familial orders, with rampant childhood homelessness and drug abuse. Through the skillful lens of cinematographer John Pope, Mariupol often appears under a near post-apocalyptic haze, the fear, dread and hopelessness overwhelming. Mokhnenko, a man of iron will, long ago grew sick of the decay and squalor, sick of seeing his city’s childrens’ bodies in gross decay from their addictions to legal (illegally obtained) codeine-laced narcotics and hard drug concoctions such as krokodil. The film allows us a disturbing glimpse of the seemingly endless track-mark riddled youthful limbs in various states of decay, making it painfully clear both why Mokhnenko’s disgust has arisen and why he’s become such a respected, feared and galvanizing force in Ukrainian society. There is clearly a huge problem here that weak central powers cannot or will not face, and in to this void strides a Dostoevsky-influenced Mokhnenko.
He operates the Pilgrim Republic, ostensibly a rehabilitation center, but in reality equal parts rehab facility, jailhouse and hospital. His methods will appear shocking and crude to most American eyes, no doubt, as he drives around in a van at night raiding youth homeless camps, nabbing kids whether they agree to go or not. But this is not America or the West, where the rule of law is clearly established and there are, at least in theory, legal societal means to address grievances related to the welfare of children. At one point we see him come across a man who is accused of exchanging drugs for sexual favors with homeless boys. The camera doesn’t capture the how, but before long the man appears bloodied and beaten. By the time we see him sitting at a table with Mokhnenko and a police officer, he’s trying to threaten Mokhnenko with telling the officer what has been done to him but it’s clear neither Mokhnenko nor the officer are too concerned. Another time we see the pastor interacting with a man accused of raping a deaf homeless woman whom is now in Mokhnenko’s care. The man is indignant she has been taken away, insists that he’s always looked out for her well being. Mokhnenko, growing increasingly angered and physical in his response, threateningly implores the man, “Do not force me to sin.”
And while his vigilante-like methods are obviously questionable, it’s also apparent that he’s operating in a nearly lawless environment. And his methods appear to have gathered the support not only of the society at large, with his anti-drug-dealing rallies drawing huge crowds in problem areas, but by the powers that be as well, with the town’s mayor saying he was initially skeptical of the man and his methods but after doing his research, having agreed to help publicly finance the Pilgrim Republic’s operating costs. The film’s most powerful moment of questioning Mokhnenko comes when it shows him reading his Wikipedia entry, where it is claimed that he is driven by a thirst for fame and attention, Hoover quickly following that up with a montage of shots of him from various Ukranian TV shows over the years.
Ultimately, Mokhnenko and his extended community’s accomplishments are threatened by the impending threat of invasion from Putin and his growing Russian reach, with the taste of war and all it’s destructive results creeping closer and closer to the citizens of Mariupol. Hoover’s forlorn documentary jumps back and forth from the recent past (the early-mid 2000’s) to the nearly current day, repeatedly returning throughout to a talk/sermon that the pastor is delivering to female prison inmates, in the process highlighting his many successes and failures in what seems a never-ending war against an unbeatable force. You see a boy on his deathbed and soon laid to rest, unable to escape the clutches of his addictions, but you also see children plucked out of hell who seem to find a sense of hope and grace in the structure provided by the tough love of a man who has chosen to act in the face of soul-crushing despair.