An interview with Steve Hoover, director of “Almost Holy”
Aleksandra Rosa 30/09/2016
Only three years have passed since Steve Hoover’s directorial debut Blood Brother, the filmthat brought him both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. Now he has created his second feature-length documentary, Almost Holy, which tackles the issue of homeless and drug-addicted children in Ukraine, through the documentation of Ukrainian priest Gennadiy Mohnenko’s work. From Blood Brother’s charity work at a house for AIDS-infected children in India, to Mohnenko’s brutal yet effective methods for saving young lives – Hoover’s films reflect on human responsibility, morality, hope, and dedication.
Still from Almost Holy
Your latest documentary, “Almost Holy”, is a story about a Ukrainian priest who is saving the lives of street children. How did this idea – about a man from Mariupol – come to the mind of an American director?
For me, it was being in the right place at the right time. That tends to be how I roll – I’m not good at seeking out stories or projects. If something comes in front of me and it looks interesting, I’m able to latch on to that. I was fortunate enough to have some friends that went to Ukraine – they were commissioned to do a project in different cities. That project led them to Mariupol, and Gennadiy’s orphanage Pilgrim Republic was their last stop. They met Gennadiy and were instantly fascinated by him. He has this presence; he comes in, he immediately starts telling stories – even though you don’t know him. He is a really passionate guy, so they were compelled to follow him around. They even detoured from their project to follow this guy, and documented some of his work, spending about three or four days with him.
At the time, we were looking for somebody to do a feature doc on, and my friends were telling me about this interesting guy who had good presence on camera. I didn’t have experience with him, so I couldn’t relate to that. After some time, one of the friends said that I really had to consider this for the documentary, and I just asked if he’d like to direct it himself. However, he really wanted me to participate and to direct the project. I watched the footage and understood how interesting this guy actually was. Then we just started moving forward, to the Kickstarter campaign.
You say Gennadiy Mohnenko is interesting, but I got the feeling that his actions were very extreme. Would you agree with that?
Yes, and he knows he is extreme, too. He really doesn’t hide it. My context for what he is doing is dramatically different. I had some rough times while growing up, but not like these kids in Mariupol, and not like him. It’s a different story, different infrastructure, different bureaucracy. So I try to understand his decisions from his perspective, and I see somebody who, in desperate times, relies on desperate measures. It’s hard to know what’s right in that situation. Is it right not to do anything, or is it right to do something wrong, and then try to do it better? I feel like it is always a case by case scenario – what might be right for one person might be totally wrong for another. A lot depends on the person who receives the help. I tried to show in the film that, even though he is extreme, and the kids approach him, tackle and hit him, they are not afraid of him. Gennadiy’s wife always jokes that she is the tough one in their relationship, and that he is the pushover. I just try to show these things because I find it important that people watch a film and process it and draw their own conclusions.
Did you get the feeling that Gennadiy was behaving differently in front of the camera? What is he like in real life?
In the film, I tried to show very directly that there is an acknowledgement of his awareness of the camera. He has been on camera for a long time, and there was a point in working with these kids that he realized the camera could be a tool. I think he started using it to get things done. He leverages it in a really fascinating way – he threatens child services with media. In America, people do that, too, just on a different level. For example, it’s Internet justice. If somebody is not behaving morally or ethically, we call attention to it. And if enough people look at it, it’s like a mob effect, which makes other people get involved, too. For years Gennadiy would do this; he would film this stuff for people to look at it. Over time, he got more people behind him because they understood that they couldn’t just step over those kids, they had to do something.
I did some research before filming him, and I knew how Genndiy would act in front of the camera. But I wanted to know what he was saying to people. His communication depends a lot on the audience. With the teenage girl Lada he was desperate, very patient; he would listen to her, sympathise with her, and ask her very simple questions. With the young boy, he took a different path – he inspired the boy and gave him vision because the boy wasn’t in a desperate place like the girl. He felt fine living on the street. Gennadiy does that with every person who comes in, and at those moments, you see him being very real – he is not curating those moments. He is fairly unpredictable; he has surprised me a lot with some of his decisions. I would assume that this religious man would draw certain kinds of conclusions, and then I watched him do the opposite.
Gennadiy Mohnenko seems to be choosing morally-right actions over lawful actions. Do you think that laws really are unimportant for him?
I think he wants to do the right thing, what is best for people. He has been trying to do this for years in a really flawed system, but he also travels and knows how it is abroad. He sometimes jokes about dreaming about going to America to preach there, but he says it’s just three loops - 911. I am sure that anybody who works according to a moral compass will always be teetering on the edge because your version of morality might not always be right. It really is subjective, and it has clearly been changing for years. In the US, things that were once insanely immoral are now considered the norm. Gennadiy once mentioned a quote from the Bible, saying that if authorities are not in place to take care of certain things, then somebody has to do it, even if it is not the best solution. That is how he views himself. He knows very well that he is not the best solution – he would rather have somebody else do it.
You are originally from Pittsburgh, so there must be some cultural differences you observed in Mariupol. What were some of the most surprising revelations about this place?
One of the things that drew me towards the story was that I actually grew up in a small farming town where I did a lot of psychotropic drugs. I moved to Pittsburgh only in 2001, and I figured that if I had been in Mariupol, then I would have probably been a street kid. I was the equivalent of that in my small town. I didn’t do heroine, but a lot of my friends died from heroine overdoses, and it was always on my trajectory. Another reason I was drawn to this story was this figure coming in and doing something about kids, because I never had this experience.
I had an idea of what Mariupol and Ukraine would be like and I loved it. It felt like I had walked into a giant set – everything felt art-directed, I loved the look of things. My first experience in a foreign country was in India, where I filmed Blood Brother, and where my heart was pounding and I couldn’t believe how glorious the experience was. It wasn’t like that in Ukraine because at this point, I had already been to a lot of countries. However, I hadn’t been anywhere like Mariupol – there is a lot of old, Soviet architecture that hasn’t been touched in years – there just aren’t enough funds to take care of it. It makes sense and I love it. I like the vibe of the factories, and I know they are not very good, but they have a feeling that includes both sadness and hope. I tried to communicate this through some of the aesthetic choices in the film. Some people would say that it is not beautiful, but I think it is. I had never seen anything like that before. There is a sort of looming darkness which eventually came out as tension within the country and the people. Maybe I was just having some obscure experiences. I was sober, though. Anyway, it was shocking to follow Gennadiy in these situations, where I didn’t know what was going to happen. The whole process of discovery and struggling with the local language was exciting. I miss it all; it was the best time of my life, even though crazy things happened.
The film has been screened at many festivals in the US and abroad. Do you feel like the reception of the film in Eastern Europe differs in some ways, bearing in mind its Soviet history?
I haven’t been to many European screenings, but I did attend a screening in Kiev, which was really interesting. I was most concerned about that one. In many ways, I feel like I made the film for Eastern Europeans more than anybody else, so I was concerned about the authenticity of what I was putting together. I worked very closely with a guy who is a Russian expat to make sure that this is legit. I didn’t want to misrepresent people.
I was blown away by the reception in Kiev. The film was really well-received. There were a lot of people from Gennadiy’s place, including his grandmother and two of his biological daughters. So it was the most nerve-wracking experience for me, but it was good. There was one person who was almost offended by the way we used music, making Mariupol seem negative and dark. I said that I actually thought it was beautiful. Atticus Ross, the composer, and I always talked about this as a beautiful darkness with an element of hope in it. His score was just trying to capture this mood.
You mentioned Atticus Ross, and also Terrence Malick, who produced the film – two influential names in the film industry. How did that come about?
We connected with Atticus on our last film – we were trying to work together, but he was really busy. He had this film on the radar, so Danny, the producer, stayed in touch with him and offered to work on this piece. We felt like Atticus would be absolutely perfect for the film. We started to assemble some footage, this was really early in the process, before we even got our Kickstarter. Atticus took interest and it ended up being an incredible collaboration. He started from the ground up; we talked a lot, and he gave me so much creative advice in the process. He is a composer, but he has worked in film for so long, and with so many different directors, so I was just humbled that he was supporting our film because he gives really constructive feedback.
We had a relationship with Nicolas Gonda, Terrence Malick’s producer, who distributed our last film. We stayed in touch about different things we were developing, and he just proposed the idea of Nicolas and Terrence coming in as creative EPs.
Do you think these names attracted more attention to the film?
That stuff always helps, but the things we were going for were the creative aspects of what people could bring into the project. You can always go out and find a big name, but the creative sensibilities of these guys were really what we were interested in. Especially with Atticus, it was like I couldn’t think of anyone else who was more in line with what we wanted to do. He committed to it early on and stuck with it throughout, creating a real character out of the music.
How did the Kickstarter project turn out? Did you raise all the funds for “Almost Holy” with that?
We raised 59,000 dollars, but that couldn’t cover everything. That was just lights, gear, and things like that. The production company Animal, that I work for in Pittsburgh, was the financial backbone of the film. Thankfully, we didn’t need investors.
If we take a broader look at your filmography, in both of your feature films you have the motif of a good guy who is voluntarily saving other people’s lives. In “Almost Holy”, it’s the Ukrainian priest, in “Blood Brother” – it’s your friend Rocky who goes to India to help AIDS-infected children. Do you feel like this is a continuous narrative in your work?
No. I’m not trying to push vision or agendas; I try to make as objective observations as they can be. In a lot of things I do, I usually go with the flow. It sounds hippy, but if something is interesting, then I go with it. Initially, I wasn’t interested in Gennadiy because there were these direct parallels. I didn’t want to be this “orphanage guy”. But when I saw Genndiy, he turned out to be a very different character in comparison to Rocky, even though there are similar things that motivate them. Blood Brother is about an American going to a foreign land, but here, Gennadiy is fighting for his own city. Even these two things alone make the works very different. Motivations, different backdrops, there are layers and layers of what formulates their thought processes.
I often joke that, if a lot of my type-A friends were in a room together, they probably wouldn’t like each other. And I kind of thought to myself that if Rocky and Gennadiy were in a room together, they would not connect.