In Indiewire’s review of Steve Hoover’s new documentary "Crocodile Gennadiy" (great doc, bad title) playing at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, the critic evokes the dreaded label "poverty porn" as one of the main risks for the filmmaker tackling such a topic. Fortunately, Hoover never falls into that trap–this time. But Hooper’s previous Sundance doc winner "Blood Brother" was exactly that: a prettified, awkwardly Westernized perspective on poor, HIV+ Indian youth.
I wrote about "Blood Brother" in this very context here, writing:
"’Blood Brother,’ as well-intentioned as it may be, presents a view of India’s poor children–in this case, orphans infected with HIV–that allows the viewer to wash their hands of the pain of these poor others. By focusing yet again on a Western outsider who swoops in to save the children, the film misses its mark, emphasizing the struggles of this conflicted American wanderer rather than giving a fuller understanding of the far more painfully tragic lives of those he wants to help."
Hoover seems to have learned from his mistakes with his follow-up "Crocodile Gennadiy," a far superior film, which successfully avoids such colonialist naval-gazing and finds a rich and complicated subject in its longitudinal study of a Ukrainian pastor-turned-activist named Gennadiy Mokhenko. Rather than the misplaced American center that derailed "Blood Brother," Hoover focuses here on the controversial figure of Mokhenko. The pastor (who looks more like a Russian hockey-player) rescues drug-addled homeless kids by forcibly, sometimes violently, grabbing them off the streets, throwing them in a van and taking them to a shelter, where he offers them tough love, a home, and in some cases, even an adopted family. And you should see what he does to the adult junkies who supply the kids their fix.
While "Blood Brother" exoticized its foreign setting with overly lush cinematography, "Crocodile Gennadiy" portrays the urban Ukrainian industrial landscapes in haunting, evocative hues. While "Blood Brother" suffered from maudlin sentimentality, "Crocodile Gennadiy" earns its tears. Audiences can disagree with Mokhenko’s tactics, or criticize him for being a media whore, but when you see him and his wife taking in more than a dozen screwed-up kids with love, devotion and not a bit of judgement, the many shades of the man come into focus with intimacy and authenticity.
"Crocodile Gennadiy" is not a slam-dunk commercially (they also have to change that impossible title — which Indiewire’s review misspelled at least once, as others will surely do in the future). But it’s a riveting and disturbing film, which skillfully balances the story of one individual trying to save his town and its youth, while his entire country is also slowly falling apart around him.