Gennadiy’s War

There’s something about pastors not acting the way people think pastors ought to act that attracts people—if not in real life, then at least on the screen. From Pale Rider to Machine Gun Preacher, people like to watch preachers pulled out of the regular ruts of how we imagine their lives and into some extraordinary action. Maybe pastors like to watch so they can live vicariously through the actions of guys in collars doing things we ourselves would never do!

Outside of the firearms and actual fighting, there are a lot of parallels between Sam Childers, the “Machine Gun Preacher,” and Gennadiy Mokhnenko, the subject of the 2015 documentary Almost Holy (executive produced by Terrence Malick; streaming on Amazon Prime video). Both of them are mostly self-made pastors (although Gennadiy has theological degrees) who see opportunities to do something for children who don’t have anyone else fighting for them. Both take place in relatively impoverished, war-torn places. Both men do nearly whatever they have to in order to rescue children from circumstances beyond their control. And both men have opponents who suspect that their philanthropy is less than pure.

Almost Holy is, above all, a well-made documentary. It moves well, and the story is organized around two points: a Soviet cartoon with a crocodile named Gennadiy, and Mokhnenko’s speech/sermon at a women’s prison. At the prison, Gennadiy tells some stories about some of the kids he’s saved from the streets and from drugs, and about the consequences of their parents’ behavior, which is visited upon their children. From there, he exhorts the women not to go back to addictions, and to think of their children.

The children’s show Cheburashka has the inversive premise of an old woman who doesn’t care about children, and a crocodile who does. Mokhnenko identifies himself with the crocodile, not only because they share a name, but because he does what he can to save children, even while being an image of something dangerous. At various points, when Mokhnenko deals with various challenges, there are short clips of the cartoon that seem to match perfectly.

Gennadiy Mokhnenko is associated with the Church of God of Ukraine, and founded and built his church, the Church of Good Changes—of some Pentecostal stripe—in Mariupol, Ukraine. But other than showing Gennadiy in a clerical collar or other clergy garb, the film spends no time at all on Gennadiy’s personal faith or confession. In some ways, the fact that he’s a pastor is incidental to the story the film is telling, and even Gennadiy says at one point something along the lines of having to do some “pastor stuff” now. I wonder if wearing a collar in Ukraine gives him an authority, or appearance of authority, that he might not otherwise have.

Throughout the film, certain shots are blurred around the edges, which works as a metaphor for Gennadiy’s entire enterprise. He sometimes takes children against their will, or rescues young women from horrible situations, even if they say they do not want to go along. He’s often doing things just on the edge of right and wrong. Even so, the film does not go the way we’ve been conditioned to expect. Gennadiy seems sincere. He does actually help children get free of drugs. He and his wife, Olena, have personally adopted something like 30 children. He doesn’t appear to be getting any kind of personal financial benefit. At least from the documentary itself, there is no indication that he is doing anything other than what he says he does, though there are a few critics who claim he is trying to gain fame, and that he takes the law into his own hands.

To the latter, he pleads guilty. Because it’s not only around his work that the edges are blurred. In Ukraine, with high drug use and HIV-positive children, as well as pharmacies (one of which Gennadiy confronts, and apparently convinces one of the workers to quit her job) selling drugs to people without prescriptions, it looks like the law that Gennadiy takes into his own hands is non-existent. The police are hesitant to act. The government doesn’t seem to want to get its hands dirty. And by the end of the film, Russia is threatening to invade and there is fighting in Mariupol.

It’s a fascinating story because Gennadiy is doing things that might be questionable in a stable society, with functioning social services. His area of Ukraine has little of that, so he does what has to be done. I suspect there would be silence from his critics if they were asked what else was being done to help those whom Gennadiy is helping. It’s easy to spin things negatively from a distance. It’s something else to simply do what is necessary. If I were one of those children in Mariupol, or across Ukraine, I’d be glad to have someone like Gennadiy Mokhnenko on my side, fighting on my behalf, even against me.

The final scene is Gennadiy lying exhausted in the sand after swimming in the Tahanroz’ka Gulf. The outcome of all his work is uncertain. He seems to have been swimming alone in the sea of degradation. It’s not an optimistic perspective, and yet the movie closes with the sound of peace, waves slowly coming on to the shore. Whatever good Gennadiy can see or not see, I’m sure the children he’s rescued will have something to say about the impact of his work, as overwhelming as that work seems.