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Tribeca Review: Terrence Malick-Produced ‘Crocodile Gennadiy’ is A Lot More Than Poverty Porn

Tribeca Review: Terrence Malick-Produced 'Crocodile Gennadiy' is A Lot More Than Poverty Porn

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Documentaries that chronicle a foreign country’s social issues occasionally come across as “poverty porn” to many Western viewers, but that label thankfully doesn’t apply to Steve Hoover’s “Crocodile Gennadiy,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Executive produced by Terrence Malick, the movie has little in common with his work, though it similarly offers an uplifting worldview.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, most of Ukraine’s social institutions crumbled under corrupt governments and a decaying infrastructure. Many of the nation’s youth succumbed to drug addiction and alcoholism while losing their homes. After watching these issues for more than a decade, a Mariupol pastor named Gennadiy Mokhnenko took matters into his own hands, forcibly removing children from the streets or unsuitable homes and taking them to his rehab and housing facility, Pilgrim Republic.

The film follows Mokhnenko’s quest over the course of the last 15 years, as some of his wards thrive and some expire, offering a frightening glimpse into a world where so few care about the decline of their so-called lesser citizens. Mokhnenko as a character in his own story is immediately charming, showing off scenes from “The Adventures of Cheburashka and Friends,” the Soviet stop-motion children’s program featuring a crocodile named Gennadiy, whose quest to help others Mokhnenko has acquired for himself. Though the antics of the animated crocodile often reflect the issues facing Pilgrim, namely governmental neglect and community pressures, in reality the issues plaguing Ukraine’s street children seem much more grim.

Like the program itself, and the tactics used by Mokhnenko, the film occasionally uses tough love to get its point across to the viewer. In one scene, a young boy, no more than 12, is brought into the center on a tarp. His skin has ballooned from a blood infection cause by the injections of “krokodil” (desomorphine) that he has not only taken himself, but pushed on other addicted kids in the room. Mokhnenko forces the children to watch him suffer, and in turn Hoover forces it upon the viewer. But without witnessing such a ghastly experience, neither the children nor the audience would comprehend the full scope of the calamity at hand.

Hoover’s blunt approach to filming such grotesque details equates him with Mokhnenko and his no-nonsense methods, but the filmmaker insists in press notes that this is not a call-to-action film. Having suffered from his own drug problems as a teenager, Hoover was, “struck by the character of Gennadiy,” admitting that the man confounded him. Indeed, why would someone go out of his way, put himself in dangerous situations and be criticized for his actions to do what he does? The film offers no answer, instead choosing to examine the conundrum of a man who repeatedly washes his face when things get to overwhelming, right before heading back out to the streets. 

A drug-like haze permeates the cinematography, by John Pope (“The Sax Man”), which emphasizes not only the children’s inflicted vision but also the questionable tactics to which Mokhnenko must resort in order to accomplish his goals. Frames are often intentionally out of focus, highlighting the murky nature of the question, but many times the scene sharpens just as Gennadiy enters it.

The score, by eerie electronica heavyweight Atticus Ross, adds and appropriate ambiance, but also hints at a sinister element to the proceedings. The dramatic sounds are a tad necessary; the film’s point would have easily come across with a less heavy-handed soundtrack, but Ross’ style remains impressive nonetheless.

The film drags a bit in the third act, but it’s a lull immediately broken by the most current events of the Russian invasion of Crimea infiltrating the already unstable environment. In the larger picture, Ukranians claim European sensibilities and values, but are unable to put them into action with Russia constantly at their doorstep. 

There have been numerous criticisms of Mokhnenko’s tactics over the years, with some arguing that his unlawful abductions of street children are a form of abuse itself, and that his repeated appearances on talk shows or news programs indicate a selfish desire for fame. Though the existence of a documentary film doesn’t ease those suspicions, the film only addresses the criticisms of the Pilgrim Republic in a brief aside, resulting in a one-sided view of the events at hand. But one has to wonder: if Hoover’s side shows a man striving to ensure that children no longer die in the streets from drug addiction, who’s on the other side?

Grade: A-

“Crocodile Gennidiy” premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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