Crocodile Gennadiy is Steve Hoover’s compelling documentary—executive produced by Terrence Malick—about the charismatic Gennadiy Mokhnenko, a Ukrainian pastor who rescues drug-addicted kids off the streets and places them in his rehab center, Pilgrim Republic. A combination prison/hospital and police station, the center is a place for kids to get off drugs and be saved from abuse. He supports youth who seek change in their lives; he wants to help them grow up and become good people. “Who will do it?” Mokhnenko asks, if he does not fight against the harsh reality of street life. Instituting a “Sick of It” movement to combat drug abuse, he is criticized by folks for desiring “fame and power.” His actions, which include confronting a pharmacy that sells opiates to addicts, sometimes cross moral boundaries. As the Ukraine comes under pressure to join the EU or remain part of Russia, Mokhnenko encounters a new set of challenges. The director Steve Hoover, along with producer Danny Yourd spoke about their film, which had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.
How did you come to find and tell Gennadiy’s story?
Steve: We work for a production company based in Pittsburgh. We were asked to do a promo on the Ukraine in the style of a film trailer. Some our crew had gone to the Ukraine—I actually was not there—and they met Gennadiy and followed him for about four days. That was the opening scene in the film with the battered girl. At the time we were looking for the subject for a feature-length documentary. They came back from Ukraine. We saw the footage and that gave me some of the context and I thought he was a compelling character. That he documented so much of his work was a major selling point.
Danny: We saw the big picture. And that made it easier for us to tell the story properly. We knew some of his past. It was archived and documented.
Danny: We had a good relationship with Malick through our past film which we made with his producer, Nicolas Gonda. We connected with him for advice and suggestions and to bounce ideas off him. Throughout that process we shared rough assembles. Conversation came about with them as creative advisors. We want the film to speak for itself, but their support doesn’t hurt.
Can you talk about what decisions you made in telling the story?
Steve: How can we tell the story given strong narrative characteristics? We did hours of interviews…
How many hours did you shoot?
Danny: We had 20 terabytes of footage. We translated 40 hours of Russian dialogue footage and that wasn’t all of it. We lucked out. We befriended a student who spoke Russian in Pittsburgh. He sat in the edit for a year. He helped us make decisions, eliminating footage, translating, research, history, etc. helping us with the educational side of things.
Steve: I wanted the dialogue to reflect day to day life, to illustrate this world. The difficult thing was the backstory. There were a lot of wonderful, organic things that happened. One of our trips—we had been with him [Gennadiy] through a lot of these kind of case studies—he goes to this women’s prison and works it all into his message to the women there, and works it all through his cases. It was a great organic way to set up scenes with doing interviews. But I wanted these things he naturally does to drive the story.
Steve: Apart from his character, and what I’ve seen of his character, I had a past as a teenager, with drug use. Addiction has been in my family. I’ve lost best friends to heroin, and uncles to cirrhosis. I’m drawn to someone who was so aggressive with these issues and the fact that he was able to be aggressive, because at times he would break the law, to carry out what he thought was just, or right or good or morally appropriate…so I think ways we handle these types of issues…it’s such a hard topic, addiction with a loved one. If our systems can’t serve us, then usually we have a difficult time personally. I think of the people I know who have died, from different types of overdoses or substance abuse that there wasn’t really a personal intervention into that. A lot of times, we don’t know how to handle those issues. I think just looking at a broken system—or trying to rebuild after fallen regime—and I guess this is what happens in those places where there is no infrastructure.
How can people be upset by what he’s doing?
Steve: How different people react is interesting. How do folks process what he’s doing? If Gennadiy is bad, than who is the good guy in the story?
There are a lot of poetic moments that serve as a contrast to the harsh realism. Can you address this aspect of the film?
Steve: There are different moments of the film that act as breathers. I had cuts of the film that were too brutal. People’s minds were checking out because there was information and character overload. The sports tie-ins were used to rehab the kids, and give the kids purpose, something to strive for. A lot of his kids are boxing or wrestling champs to instill pride in them. Kids are becoming like Gennadiy. He is passionate about always being active, and physical. A lot of the physical activity is cathartic. It’s an outlet, a way to sweat out some of the aggression; it’s a healthy way to channel things for some kids. I don’t know how Gennadiy does it all. He said one thing that was really funny, “God gave me a special gift: I can sleep anywhere, and I only need 2 hours and I’m fine.” He loves coffee, and he eats a lot of protein/nuts, that give him energy.
Steve: We had some vague ideas about what the story might be when we first started. The revolution was barely at a whisper; it was not even a public thing by the time we were shooting. When the Ukraine decided not to join the European Union we were already deep into the film. A lot of that was unexpected and it continued to escalate and devolve and affected everybody’s life. What we thought was an obscure city has now become the spotlight in the conflict, and the major point of tension. It had a huge effect on the story because of how much it affected everyone and everything and how much it’s threatened all Gennadiy has been working for over the years. It affects the future. In my opinion, it shows he’s never going to be able to stop. It is almost as if he can’t not do something if it’s in front of him.
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the recently published Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.