By Ross Bembenek
I’ll be honest, going into Crocodile Gennadiy, I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew it was a documentary that centered around Ukrainian pastor Gennadiy Mokhnenko, whose life mission is to save homeless and orphaned children from drugs in his city of Mariupol. I knew the film was receiving high praise from The Hollywood Reporter and Tribeca Film Festival. What I did not know, however, was just how compelling and gut-wrenching this film would be.
Gennadiy focuses on the mission of its title subject, Gennadiy Mokhnenko, as he works to save street kids from drug addiction in Mariupol, Ukraine. His “unconventional” methods of working have seen him labeled as a vigilante by his critics, earning him the nickname “Crocodile” Gennadiy. However, Mokhnenko’s actions have some hailing him as a savior of some of the most marginalized people since the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. Gennadiy not only acts as a savior for some of the children he helps, he also acts as a father figure; Mokhnenko has adopted thirty-two children off the streets of Mariupol.
The first and most important aspect that I loved about this documentary was the fact that it emphasized, time and time again, that this is not a story about one man’s fight. It’s the story of the destabilization of the Ukraine and the effect that that destabilization has had on the children of Mokhnenko’s city. The film was meant to raise awareness for a man and his cause that are doing great things in the world for so many people, and it excelled in that endeavor. Another thing in this documentary that strongly resonated with me was its refusal to back down from the brutality of its subject matter. The depiction of these kids’ drug addictions doesn’t just jar the viewer, it is a full-on assault, with graphic depictions of young children that are sick, dying, or covered in heroin sores.
In addition to being faithful and unforgiving in its brutal subject matter, the documentary itself was very well put together. The camera work was superb throughout, and the b-roll (some of which was filmed up to fifteen years ago) was all exquisitely shot. In addition to footage and interviews of Mokhnenko and the children of his program, clips from an old Soviet cartoon, coincidentally also called Crocodile Gennadiy (in this case, the word “crocodile” in this cartoon is an actual crocodile named Gennadiy). Mokhnenko is seen laughing at the show early on in the film, and throughout the remainder of the documentary clips from the cartoon are played, each displaying a common theme that the documentary will be discussing next. I found this to be a wonderful supplementary touch to the film; it added a certain layer of depth that I feel helped the themes resonate better with the audience.
One of Crocodile Gennadiy’s most endearing elements, in my opinion, was the footage that showed Mokhnenko interacting with his children and family. It shone a new light on the character, and without it, I believe the film would have left out what is probably the most essential piece to Gennadiy Mokhnenko as a man.
There was really only one aspect of this movie that I did not particularly enjoy. The final ten minutes of the documentary are dedicated to discussing the recent problems Ukraine has had with Russia over the past year and a half. While I understand that this topic is extremely important to Mokhnenko and the Ukrainian people, I felt that dedicating the film’s final segment to this topic distracted audiences from what the documentary was truly about: the plight of street kids in Ukraine.
Overall, Crocodile Gennadiy should be considered a must-watch documentary. However, it is not a documentary that should be taken lightly. This is a serious, blunt, and brutal punch to the face. The plight of these children will leave viewers rocked to their very core. Seeing their needle-scarred arms left me both physically and emotionally jarred. However, I left the theater not only feeling entertained and informed, but I felt a deep desire to actually read more into its subject matter, and after all, isn’t that why we watch documentaries in the first place?