“Almost Holy” is one of the most harrowing documentaries I have seen in years as it follows the efforts of Gennadiy Mokhnenko, a Ukrainian pastor, who helps the drug addicted kids lost in the streets of Mariupol, Ukraine. After the Soviet Union fell, social services in Russia were severely cut to where many of its citizens fell into a life of drugs and prostitution, and Gennadiy pulls them off the street to give them the help they need at his Pilgrim Republic rehab facility. While many view him as a hero, others consider him a vigilante for his unorthodox tactics. The way he sees it, he doesn’t need anyone’s permission to do good deeds, and the documentary invites us to make up our own minds about him and what he does.
“Almost Holy” was directed by Steve Hoover whose previous works include the critically acclaimed documentaries “Blood Brother” and “Seven Days.” I got to speak with him while he was in Los Angeles.
Ben Kenber: How did you first become aware of Gennadiy?
Steve Hoover: I had friends who worked on an assignment in Ukraine doing a promotional piece for a nonprofit and they were traveling to a lot of different cities in Ukraine, and their last stop was Mariupol at Pilgrim with is Gennadiy’s rehab center. They were forewarned that this guy was fascinating and to not revert too much onto him, and the way they’ll describe is not intentionally, but he stole the show for them. They detoured from the project and followed him for several days and just filmed everything, and they described Gennadiy as having loads of stories and he just talked and captivated everybody in the room. These are friends of mine that I work with and they came back to Pittsburgh where I am based after that trip and they were like, “You have to see this guy. He’s open to being in a documentary and he has years of archival footage. Do you want to direct it?” And I was like, “Well, why don’t you direct it?” Anyway, they offered it to me to direct, so that’s how I got connected to Gennadiy and things went from there.
BK: What I found fascinating about “Almost Holy” is that you never judge Gennadiy. There are reasons to judge him especially when it comes to the way he gets kids into his rehab program. How were you able to keep a very objective perspective while making this documentary?
SH: I wanted people to have a similar experience that I had. I didn’t want them to have my exact experience. I found that I walked into this situation thinking that I knew and understood the story, but as documentaries go you never do. In general, I’m interested in people’s motives and complications of people’s motives, and I like to explore why people make the decisions they make because I find people so easily boil people’s motives down to very simple things. I just don’t think that’s ever the case. Why Gennadiy does what he does, there is not an easy answer for that. I think he’s somebody you could frame in a lot of different ways. People have made him look very heroic, and I wanted people to see what I saw and didn’t want to give people answers because I don’t ever feel confident in being like here’s how you should think or here’s how you should think about this person. You don’t have to do any work, just react emotionally to this.
BK: How would you say your vision of this documentary evolved from when you first started shooting it to when you were editing it?
SH: I think because my friends that had met Gennadiy had limited exposure to him, they thought the story was something. So what they communicated to me was what I thought the story was going to be; that Gennadiy only stays in Mariupol and pulls kids off the streets and rehabs them. That was what I thought I was walking into. I didn’t have personal correspondence with Gennadiy beforehand, so the first time I saw him was the first time I ever talked to him. Some people will do extensive talks with the subject to try to figure out if this is worth it, but I just fell into Ukraine which, for me, was fun because it was this exploration and it was very much an adventure. I quickly started to realize that the story was more interesting than that. How does he get more interesting than adopting homeless kids and rehabbing them? His story had evolved with the needs and problems of his city and what was around him, and I came to realize that adopting kids from the street through these night raids was a back story and that it was so much more ill-defined which made him more developed and interesting. When we started the conflict hadn’t happened. There wasn’t even like, “Oh now’s a good time to do something in Ukraine because there might be a conflict.” There was nothing. That all dramatically impacted the narrative of the film because the conflict forced its way into everybody’s lives in Ukraine, so for a while I wasn’t sure. In the middle of it there’s the Euromaidan revolution and I was like, I don’t think we need to get into that. But it just kept creeping closer and closer and then it just was on the doorstep and in his life and everybody’s lives. At first it was like okay, I can avoid this, but then I realized how much it actually helped the story because here you have a figure who cares deeply about Ukraine and has been an advocate, a social worker and a lot of makeshift things. Whether it’s the prettiest execution of those offices or makeshift offices doesn’t matter. He’s somebody who was trying to make a difference in his country, and all his years of work is now being threatened by a force he can’t control and that became more interesting to me. That’s how it changed.
BK: The documentary has a wonderful industrial score by Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross and Bobby Krlic. Did you work with them closely on the score, or did you let the composers just work on it on their own?
SH: We had sent Atticus some clips of Gennadiy as a work in progress and said this is what we’re doing, would you be interested in being a part of this? He took interest for his own reasons, and he’s somebody who is creatively beyond me in what I do. He has incredible sensibilities and is someone you could absolutely trust. I was interested in seeing how these visuals inspire him and what he made of them, and he would send me bits of his work and his inspiration. The way I like to work is exactly like that, where composers would give me music. My last film had six or seven different composers and I only knew one of them personally. The great thing is Atticus had been working on it at his own time and pace based out of inspiration. Atticus, Leopold and Bobby, they provided a really excellent pool of material that I felt was inspired by the industrial backdrop of Ukraine. It’s interesting because there are definitely darker, bleak and intense moments, but there also these moments of hope in the score. There are moments that bring such character to the film. It was great working with him (Atticus) creatively. It wasn’t just like, “Hey what are your thoughts on the score?” I looked to him a lot for feedback on picture and on the edit, and he was very involved and very helpful. I respect his creative sensibilities a lot.
BK: The documentary also has the wonderful privilege of being executive produced by Terrence Malick. How did Malick become involved?
SH: With our last film we had worked with Nicolas Gonda who is also an executive producer on this film, and he is Terrence Malick’s producer. So we worked with Nicolas and, similar to developing a relationship with Atticus for the film, we had some work in progress and basically pitched the idea of creating an executive producer relationship for Nicolas and Terrence Malick. They took interest, so that’s basically how it happened.
BK: How many years did you shoot this documentary over?
SH: The film covers years, and a lot of that is due to Gennadiy’s archival footage. He had footage from 2001 to roughly 2008, and then we came into the picture in 2012 and shot. I wrapped the edit at the beginning of 2015, but I was still pulling news sources and things like that. So we were with the story for three and a half years.
BK: Are there any movies for you that helped influence the style of this documentary?
SH: I think more in postproduction. There’s a movement within documentary and creative nonfiction to make documentary films seem more dramatic and entertaining or to just push the creative boundaries of documentaries, so I like those ideas and those sensibilities. My last film was kind of a happy accident. I was sort of rebelling against polished productions because I had been doing commercials and music videos for years, and I wanted to do something that didn’t matter what the picture looked like and was more heart. I didn’t know very much about documentaries towards the end of that. I was like, what if I could care about the image but still give it heart or authenticity? So that was sort of what drove a lot of my creative decisions with “Almost Holy.” I wanted it to be more classic filmmaking. I didn’t want to bring the slider or certain things. I just wanted it to feel like a classic film with just traditional lockdowns and nice shots as much as possible. We were on the go a lot so that didn’t always work out, but even with when people were talking I made sure we always had two cameras running to film it like a narrative film so that I could cut dialogue later so you could feel the conversation like you would in a film.
BK: That’s interesting because a lot of directors come from the world of music videos and commercials, and it seems to be that that world is more about style than anything else. So to escape from that has got to be very fulfilling in a sense when you come to a documentary like this. Would you say that is the case?
SH: Yeah. With the last film that was very much the case, and then with this one it was kind of like marrying the two worlds. I have these years of experience with the crew that I work with, and these guys are very talented. What if we applied all of that in a running gun setting? Everyone adapted very well to it. We were in places where we had a minute to set up our shots and we would be stuck on a lens and we just made do, but I feel like it was very rewarding. It was hard, it was really hard. It was basically five filmmakers and then six people with the translator trying to make this happen. We had an insane amount of gear, but everyone pulled their weight and I think they did a fantastic job.
I want to thank Steve Hoover for taking the time to talk with me. Please visit the “Almost Holy” website to find out how you can view it (www.almostholyfilm.com).
Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.