This is the dark, incredibly realistic bibliographical drama directed by Steve Hoover and starred by Gennadiy Mokhnenko. Being both Ukrainian and USA project it is done in English, Russian and sometimes Ukrainian languages. I would not call it strictly documentary film in concern of the ‘fictional’ symbols artistically provided through the process of montage yet surely classify this film as ‘nonfiction’.
The movie has the structure of the metanarrative of pastor Gennadiy Mokhnenko who is invited to the women’s prison to give a speech about his social activities and Republic Pelegrim for orphan children who or whose parents were drug-addicts, alcoholics practicing severe home abuse. His speech includes several chronologically built stories of different people. It immerses the viewer in the events of Mariupol (with a short exception of Kiev) starting in year 2012 then jumps back to 2000 coming back to 2015, that is why it has nonlinear development. Additionally, there are inserts of the development and main changes of the Ukrainian government during these years.
Gennadiy does not give up fighting against social misery and troubles in the streets of Mariupol eventually getting a request to build a church: “it’s not your job, but who will do it?” – sounds quite ambivalent. He feels as a special service, his rehab center works like a “prison, hospital, politzai”.
“Do you really think that our society is ready for this?”, asks one of the women.
Gennadiy dreams that one day the Republic Pelegrim as a ‘country of neglected ones’ would be closed and he would put a huge sign saying that there are no more homeless, junkies, alcoholics left on the streets. But seeing the rough reality one would question if this will ever be possible.
This shot is disturbing by its content but also by the fact of being a metonymy for the numbers of Ukrainian people, especially abondoned children: “Now, Ukraine, get out from there, go straight on us (meaning the camera)!”
Gennadiy: What is your surname, Victor?
neglected boy Victor: I keep forgetting my surname.
G: [smiles] Pushkin?
V: No, write as Chebotaryov, batyavich. (in italics is the Russian way of jokingly saying someone’s father’s name (patronymic) if they do not know it. It is the cultural way of addressing someone you know by their father’s name (patronymic) only or in combination with the first name to show respect like Mr/ Kirie/ Monsieur etc. In this case the word ‘batya’ is also a representative part of the vocabulary of lower educated people)
G: [laughs, Victor smiles without understanding] I have already 5 Chebotaryovs, bro. Think of something else! George Bush, Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin…
G: Babesku? […] write down here..
V: I cannot write.
G: Write down letters A Б В Г Д Е.
V: I cannot write [smiles], I did not go to school.
G: Listen to me attentively. You have to take a decision, man. If you want to live a life as lost as your parents had, you’ll manage it easily. Firstly, stay here with us, we climb on the mountains, we go camping , we cycle around the world; we will restore your documents, we will create them once again; you’ll get an eduction, all encounters with the police I will take in my own hands. You will grow up like a human, man, like a human! Neither like a homeless, nor junkie, nor boozer, nor fool, you’ll be a normal human being, a common guy! Moreover, I will try to be your father. Do you hear me? Roma, who is one of my first adopted sons, he is a gypsy, now he has 5 children and a family… [awaiting silence for a moment] YES OR NO?
V: Yes. [they both laugh]
P.S. The phrase around the world usually created a fictional unreachable and almost impossible picture of the world outside Ukraine/ Russia, which is a limiting mind characteristic of person who grew up in (post-)Soviet Union countries.
Gennadiy is the father of 32 adopted children, he has 3 on his own. He believes it might not be the best example to follow but they have to take children because no-one else wanted to take them. The Republic Pelegrim “is not an orpanage but […] is [the] family”. His wife tells with a bit of a humour that they wanted to help, recalls how this all has started gradually changing the wide smile to the glimpse of tears in her eyes: “I was always wondering, why my kid is with me but these children are on their own at the street?”
His own family story was not so rainbow though. Gennadiy’s parents are alcoholics but he is still happy they are at least alive. His mother was producing vodka in the bath, which for him as a child and in general was hell because he loves them, even if this is a great tragedy. “Not the fault is theirs but the trouble”, says Gennadiy using old Rus proverb. For his own sons he wishes to have a good heart.
The woman: What is the meaning of life?
The boy: Everyone has their own meaning.
W: Do you have friends?
B: Yes, in Pelegrime. [I wish] they would not run away from this place because they will go down to the state where I am currently and will die.
Gennadiy was the organiser and the leader of the non-violent protest OBRYDLO (Ukr.verb meaning We are weary or We are fed up) against drug dealers and some drugs one could easily buy in a pharmacy, which eventually came to Kiev as well.
“This is our city and we want to have an order in it.” His speech seems to be harsh, severe as the circumstances which surround him, but when he talks in English his accent is quite representative because almost all Ukrainians who learn enough of English to be able to express themselves even with the simplest words speak this way. It is like when one continues talking in Ukrainian structure of language just with a usage of English words, imitating the literal translation.
Gennadiy comes to help not only to children but also to the grown up people with issues, especially to women who live through the home abuse. The viewer is exposed to the case of the death-mute woman, they found in the house which looked more like a dump than even an average or low-quality apartment with her presumptive partner. She was extremely scared and said to the interpretor that her partner was taking advantage of her: he took the invalid woman, without documents and was raping her. She was asked by Gennadiy if she wants the man to leave her forever and she agreed. The man kept looking for excuses although all of them seemed to be pathetic and not convincing. Then one sees Gennagiy washing his hands and saying that he wants to clean his soul after this story, which is a symbol itself.
Several other instances are represented to complete the metanarrative, but they all have someone in common. Someone who having experienced once that his help really was useful for someone, could never possibly exchange this to a conventional life. Gennadiy worked before as a saving policemen force and already realized how it is to save someone’s life: “I felt like a Superman, like a real hero. […] This man is going to live because we saved him. […] special unforgettable feeling.”
At the last half an hour of the movie Gennadiy expresses his opinion and pain visible through his eyes about the latest events in Mariupol and Donbas.
The cinematography is made by John Pope. The filming technique used might appear messy especially during the first years of Gennadiy’s activities shown. I would presume that the early years were not filmed by the film team, because it was about 15 years ago, thus they were probably made with a phone or not professional camera, which clearly represents the real toughness of the circumstances one has seen. Even if those shots were filmed by the team, the feeling that it was filmed with a phone still is present, which works in the same useful way described above. The dull and muted colors work for the same purpose. The poverty of standard of life, the real hospital rooms, cars and the treatment process, little children who use swear words, Gennadiy’s routine are represented without extra beautification. At some point the viewer is exposed to the shot of the poisonous factories’ smoke and steam of Mariupol in the pink dull light of the sunset, which is an authentic picture, I have seen those factories with my own eyes once and smelled the horrible gases.
Obviously, for the effect which film wants to deliver to the viewer the most abandoned and neglected parts of the city are chosen. It is not like there were no beautiful and safe places. However it is appropriate for the plot, and Mariupol is indeed city-factory.
I agree with Charlie Theobald‘s review that “Hoover’s documentary does not seek to canonise, or condemn, Gennadiy” but rather reflect the complexity of the character of Gennagiy and the situations he had to deal with; it makes one question What I would do if I were in his shoes?
Similarly, music is reserved, it adds up to the feeling of confusion and responsibility of the choice through the invisible, almost silent and sometimes disturbing beat, recreating the situation where you are left face-to-face with yourself, decisions you made, your awareness of their consequences. It also gives a space for the viewers’ emotions and reflections. An unobtrusive heartbeat, increases the tension of what is happening in a current shot. Sometimes one could hear old Russian and Soviet songs, sung by Gennadiy himself, which reflects the cultural background and influence on the formulation of his complex personality.
The musical pieces were made by Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross, Bobby Krlic, and sound mixer George Simpson.
Gennadiy claims that he will fight until the end. “Ukraine maybe is not the best place to live, but it is my country, [it is] my city. I hate many things in it, cruel things, but I [still] love my city and I hope that my life will leave a mark and this place will become a little bit better, thus my country will become better.”
“My name is pastor Crocodile.”
To be continued…