- Associated Press - Sunday, April 19, 2015

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Alfred Hitchcock once said he could imagine the entire movie he was about to shoot in his head.

But, as producer Danny Yourd says, documentary makers know that if you end up with the exact film you envisioned, you must have missed something. As Pittsburgh writer-director Steve Hoover and Yourd made “Crocodile Gennadiy,” it would have been impossible to anticipate or ignore the military conflict in eastern Ukraine provoked by Russian intervention a year ago.

“Crocodile Gennadiy,” which had its world premiere Thursday night at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, paints an indelible picture of a strong-willed pastor named Gennadiy Mokhnenko who rescues or forcibly abducts homeless, drug-addicted children from the streets of Mariupol, Ukraine. Many are hooked on a lethal cocktail of injected cold medicine and alcohol.

He is determined to fish them out of (literal) manholes and hellholes, to allow the track marks on their arms to heal and to provide a safe place for them to live and grow and possibly find new parents. He oversees a children’s rehab center called Pilgrim Republic, the largest organization of its kind in the former Soviet Union.

The film shows Mokhnenko counseling a girl whose alcoholic mother said of the 15-year-old and her 8-year-old brother, “When will you two die?” He removes another girl whose father hanged himself with a TV cable and whose mother and grandmother cannot hear or speak and prostitute themselves for vodka. A sobbing boy is carried in on a mattress so he can show the other former “vagabonds” the scourge of a blood infection before he is taken away by ambulance.

“Our hope is to get as much distribution as possible for it, for as many people just to see the film, to find places in Europe and Eastern Europe where it can be screened. Really, all around the world. We just want to share the story,” Hoover said in a phone interview before leaving for the festival where Mokhnenko is expected.

Hoover and Yourd, along with others from their employer, Pittsburgh production company Animal, had collaborated on “Blood Brother” about a friend working in India with children living at an orphanage for those infected with the AIDS virus. It captured the grand jury prize and audience award for U.S. documentaries at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

When Animal went to Ukraine to shoot a piece for a nonprofit organization, a small team met Mokhnenko. No stranger to TV coverage or controversy and willing to share archival footage of his efforts dating to 2000, he was open to a full-length film.

All crews encounter obstacles but this one was attacked by a mob with tear gas, baseball bats and makeshift clubs in March 2014 while filming the remains of what had been a pro-Russian protest hours earlier.

“That was definitely the most frightening, harrowing moment for us as a crew. Our lives were definitely in danger, we were chased and attacked and tear-gassed and they were trying to tip our van and who knows what would have happened if they succeeded,” said Mr. Hoover.

“Our tires were slashed and apparently shot out. It was a very frightening moment and also because I don’t speak Russian, so I couldn’t really process what was being said around me,” he said, adding to the confusion. “At the time, I didn’t know it but my wife was pregnant, so when I came home to find that out, retrospectively, it became even more important.”

Mokhnenko had accompanied the crew and everyone initially felt comfortable at the rally. Hoover and others headed for the press section but the fact they spoke English and were obviously Westerners made them a target. “What are they, Americans? Get them out of here,” someone can be heard saying in an audio preceding the attack, which started with insults and built to shattered glass, ferocious pounding on the van and a woman yanked out of the vehicle at one point.

“People were tear gassed, so there was a strong physical reaction to that. I was kicked at one point as I was running for the van,” the director said.

“A really amazing part of the story is a kid Gennadiy had pulled off the street years ago - you actually see him younger in the film, he’s now a really big guy - he put himself between us and the violence. He was attacked, he basically held off a part of the crowd that was trying to get into the van, just with his girth, and he got beat pretty well.”

The festival, accurately, calls the film a “bold and captivating portrait of a man fighting to change Ukraine for the better, as its place in a tense political landscape hangs in the balance.” Life in Mariupol has become more unpredictable and volatile as fighting has crept closer.

The 97-minute “Crocodile Gennadiy,” which intersperses documentary footage with clips from a popular Soviet animated TV show, is in English and Russian. John Pope from “Blood Brother” repeats as cinematographer and it counts some heavy hitters behind the scenes including Terrence Malick as an executive producer and Atticus Ross (“The Social Network”) as one of the composers.

The Village Voice included the movie in a Wednesday story about what readers need to see at the festival. Aaron Hillis wrote: “The moral ambiguities continue to stack up in - stand aside, Marvel Comics! - the best superhero vigilante movie of the year, ‘Crocodile Gennadiy.’ .

“‘Blood Brother’ director Steve Hoover, aided by an apocalyptic synth score by Atticus Ross, paints a robust, social-activist portrait that’s as intense and infuriating as it is fist-pumpingly enthralling.”

It’s too early to say when the movie will play in Pittsburgh. It may depend on festival reception and what sort of distribution deal the filmmakers strike but “Crocodile Gennadiy” is more timely than ever and presents a vivid picture of a man on a mission determined to penetrate and puncture the bleak darkness with hope, help and muscle.

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1HHJFqh

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com

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