I had always heard about the “old country” through my parents.
For the train trip that took my mother, her sisters and Grannie away from Tornopol, Ukraine, Grannie packed cold hamburgers in a basket. The first time my mother ate a chocolate bar was upon the ocean liner coming to Canada.
My mother frequently recalled, with delight, the decorative iron lamps that cast a golden light upon a drizzling evening as they arrived in Winnipeg at the old CPR Station, now the Centre for Aboriginal Human Resource Development Inc.
“It was a fairy land,” she would say.
There was a waiting car (of all wonderments) that whisked the new arrivals to a house in Point Douglas where a big party took place in the large front room. It lasted long into the night with plenty of laughter and lots (lots) of jovial glass clinking.
The old country was filled with people my mother called “nashi liudeh” (our people) and the countryside held healing, aromatic pines.
Prone to chest colds, my mother would be taken by Grannie to a pine grove to breathe in the scented air.
The old country was a place of wisdom – that often applied to things like the moon, water, and even tea leaf reading.
It was also a place my mother thanked the “powers that be” for getting her and her family “the hell out of”.
Had they stayed, my mother believed, they would certainly be dead, perhaps from the Holodomor genocide or other Stalinist oppression. (She came to Canada when she was only four years old).
But I liked my pine forest stories and hearing about my great grandfather in the cavalry and a country filled with something called “our people”.
So it was with a sense of dread that I went to see the movie “Almost Holy” that opened this year’s Kino Film Fest, showing the best of Ukrainian cinema.
I had watched the movie’s trailer on YouTube:
It graphically shows children living in the greatest depths of despair on the streets of the “old country”, when Ukraine is plunged into economic dysfunction and resultant social break down after the unpredictably sudden dissolution of the Soviet Union. Ukraine had already experienced decades of communist rule and its oppressions.
“This is real Ukraine,” says Pastor Gennadiy Mokhnenko, a crusading and fearless priest who took it into his own hands to find his city’s street children and provide for them.
Arriving at the Metropolitan Entertainment Centre, any feelings of dread left me once I was alongside the centre’s friendly staff, saw the opulent and historic interior, and above all, met Pastor Mokhnenko before the screening. He was friendly and thoughtful and he radiated a depth of kindness.
The film begins with a quote by Russian playwright and author Isaak Babel:
“A well thought out story doesn’t need to resemble real life. Life itself tries with all its might to resemble a well-crafted story”.
(Babel was executed in the “Great Purges” under the Stalin Soviet system. He was later cleared and his works were again published after Stalin’s death).
The film then captures early morning at Pilgrim Republic, a rehabilitation centre for homeless and needy Ukrainian children. The centre is run by the pastor, a handsome and burly religious man and former fire fighter.
Gennadiy is shown a few times in the film aggressively working out at the punching bag. It is an inspiring metaphor for his struggle to save the city’s children from a formidable opponent.
On this morning, he is laughing at a cartoon that features a crocodile with the same name (Gennadiy) who also saves children from the forces of evil, depicted in the cartoon as a mean old lady. (In Slavic culture, the old crone or witch is a typical representation of evil, as it is perhaps universally).
Gennadiy’s work seems as fundamental as the morality of the most ancient and universal folk tale. Cartoon scenes are interwoven throughout the film, strangely demonstrating very well the complex situations Gennadiy gets into among people and among the disabled systems of health, child protection and welfare.
The morning turns into a typical work day of outreach service. Gennadiy finds a woman by the roadside who is beaten so badly her face looks like a grotesque mask. He is completely unfazed by the shockingly victimized woman, who appears even more disturbed when Gennadiy asks how she got there.
“They stuck a needle in me and activated a robot virus,” she says.
She is delusional in a way that suggests an oppressively exploitative life situation or a great fear surrounding the HIV epidemic in Ukraine. The country has the fastest growing and greatest number of HIV cases in all of Europe.
She represents an ugly reality of Ukraine’s burgeoning sex industry born from a fractured economy transitioning poorly from communism to a free market.
It’s all in a day’s work to Gennadiy, and he begins to provide a slightly comedic, but truthful narration.
“This is classical Russian ambulance,” he says of the vehicle they are riding in that resembles an old school bus.
“No electroshock. No oxygen, no something special, nothing… just seat,” he says as he pats the bench seats they are riding on.
“If you have a chance to go to hospital alive, it is good. If no, sorry. That is real for us.”
He speaks with an honest, sometimes amusing straightforwardness that comes forth at the deepest moments in the movie.
“Almost Holy” captures events beginning in 2003 and ends about 10 years later just at the beginning of the Russian invasion in the Crimean Conflict. These were years when Pastor Gennadiy simply chose to aggressively deal with his city’s street youth problem that increasingly whirl winded down in a country ill prepared to deliver social services or even undertake policy development amid worsening problems.
In question period after the film, Pastor Gennadiy described how civic officials needed to be convinced of the value of his work. Today, the city of Mariupol provides funds to cover the electricity at Pilgrim Republic. “Praise God,” says Gennadiy.
As day turns to dark night the pastor begins to search for homeless children. A harrowing scene includes Gennadiy and his team pulling up children from the crawl spaces of Mariupol’s sewer system. The scenes are graphic, showing the spaces littered with used needles (and Gennadiy stomping on any usable drug paraphernalia). The children are filthy and scarred with needle marks. Many are pre-teens.
Suddenly, an adult male is pulled out of the sewer as well. He is there to purchase sex.
Dubbed the “night raids” by the media, the film shows children resisting their rescue. Gently, the documentary explores the issue of resistance among street youth and an interviewer candidly asks a teen why some children run away from treatment.
“Freedom,” replies a youth. He defines this as “not being forced.”
“There is an excitement to the streets,” explained the pastor in question period after the screening.
He said an equal or better measure of excitement must be offered within any rehabilitation program, and his centre offers something called the Pilgrim International Bike Program as well as other activities like hiking, camping and working traditionally in the Ukrainian countryside. The gripping night raids employ rescued children who know where to find the street kids.
“But,” says the pastor, “there is much more to it than this.”
The film shows the pastor asking a youth, who cannot write for lack of education, to write a simple sentence – “How are you?” – to begin life anew, pointing to a “buy in” for youth who must make a willful decision to leave the street behind.
There are many happy scenes of music lessons, sports and fun at the Pilrgrim Republic – when suddenly all is interrupted when an adolescent is carried from his room wrapped in a blanket. The youth is clearly very ill, crying and repentant.
A large, inflamed needle injection mark is visible upon his scarred arm and the infection has dangerously entered his blood system.
“Should I blow a fortune on your unlikely recovery so you can spike their veins underground?” the pastor demands.
He turns to the surrounding children and asks how many of them have been injected with drugs by the ill child. A few hands are raised.
“I am not convinced recovery is best for him,” says the pastor in likely one of the most intense teaching moments ever.
In a short moment, the pastor, (in his own particular way of an eloquent preacher) quickly speaks of refraining from playing God. He immediately calls for an an ambulance and instructs everyone to help.
All throughout the movie the viewer experiences the intensity of the closeness of life and death in the pastor’s world.
Another scene shows a youth who is breathing in the characteristic pattern of imminent death and the pastor asks who has sold drugs to him. The dying youth hesitates and it is only upon his death bed that the name of the drug dealer is given up.
Next, a curiously gaunt child likely sick with AIDS tells an interviewer that children shouldn’t run away from treatment because “they will get to the state I am in. And they will die.”
The camera then pulls back from a school photo of a healthy, full cheeked boy to an open coffin at Pilgrim Republic, surrounded by a fraternity of children. Dressed in the dark embroidered ceremonial vestments, Pastor Gennadiy memorializes the boy with a call to grassroots action.
“Thousands of kids buy drugs from them every day. That’s why we need immediate action. And if the county’s rulers don’t work, if the letters to the mayor don’t work, if there is no action from the top, then we act from below.”
In the old fashioned way, youths lower the coffin by ropes; earth is manually shoveled over it as the pastor looks on with grim commitment.
The cinematography of the film is stunning. This was noted in question period by one of a number of local film makers in attendance.
Camera movement that sometimes inter-plays with creeping shadows seems to create a sense of an ominous stalking force present but unseen.
Although “Almost Holy” is a documentary, it doesn’t look like one. The film uses complex edits that are exceptionally creative. Music, atmospheric sounds, other audio and narration are pulled over scenes that, in this layered manner, reflect the very complexity of the social problems depicted (as well as the efforts to deal with them). This is very powerful when audio news of Ukraine’s shifting political events connect with desperate reflections of everyday life.
Absolutely hair raising is the swell of sounds, scenes, and information for the “Sick of It” campaign – the very manifestation of Mokhnenko’s commitment of action he makes to the dead – and for the living – on the day of the boy’s funeral.
Driving out the complicated problem of street drug traffic in “Almost Holy” are images of demonstrations before corrupt pharmacies, meetings with municipal leaders, coffins paraded in the streets, media coverage of the campaign and Gennadiy speaking to policy makers urging workable policy (in the absence of any). He also dares question the presence of a corrupt political culture. All is underscored with the inertia of Ukraine’s profound political instability.
An ancient map and tapestry of the Ukrainian area, replete with traditionally frightening and mysterious ocean monsters in the adjoining seas seem to roil with changing light, shadow, and shadow images.
Many times the pastor is seen washing his hands after working in the very quick of such desperation – situations biblical scripture describes as “unclean”.
Noah Erenberg, film maker, documentarian and CNC convener, whose forefathers came from Mariupol, asked in question period what sustained the pastor in such difficult work.
“I look to God,” he replied.
The film also shows Gennadiy enjoying his adopted children of the orphanage and laughs with his biological children as they watch the cartoon crocodile saving kids from the forces of evil.
After the screening, the pastor explained that today there are no street children in his city of Mariupol – the intervention has been so effective.
Winnipeg cannot boast that accomplishment.
In September, the Osborne Village neighbourhood publicized the high number of homeless people sleeping in doorways, benches or in building corners. Many are youths who can be seen pan handling in the neighbourhood’s commercial areas on a daily basis.
Other Winnipeg news accounts report youth in exploitation, with some working as prostitutes. Many are maintained in the lifestyle by enablers who supply drugs and use coercive tactics.
Listen to Shirley Kowalchuk’s audio interview with Pastor Gennadiy Mokhnenko here:
Watch “Almost Holy” online here: