Rightly singled out by many as one of the more arresting and formally inventive documentaries at Sundance this year, debutant director Chad Gracia’s The Russian Woodpecker offers a wild ride through Ukrainian and Soviet history, from the famines of the early 30s through Chernobyl and up to the present-day war with Russia. American-born, Russian-fluent theatre director Gracia selects as his anchor protagonist eccentric Ukrainian artist Fedor Alexandrovich, a Chernobyl survivor himself who has an elaborate conspiracy theory about the real reasons why the reactor blew up in 1986. Featuring remarkable footage throughout – some shot within the exclusion zone around Chernobyl and during the Independence Square protests of 2013-14 – the gonzo-spirited Woodpecker should expect festivals and adventurous broadcasters to come knocking on its door.
With nest of wild hair and bug-eyed stare, Fedor superficially seems a few uranium rods short of the full reactor, but underneath the excitability and the poetic flights of fancy, there’s obviously a sharp intelligence there. Infected with radiation as a four-year-old in 1986 when the meltdown happened, he still has traces of strontium in his body. But where a North American or European person would wear this dark legacy like a badge of victimhood, Fedor’s fascination with the disaster is both intellectual and patriotic as much as personal.
Convinced there is a connection between the nuclear disaster and the Duga, a massive secret military installation that was visible from the Chernobyl plant itself, Fedor, Gracia, and Fedor’s friend Artem Ryzhykov (who also serves as the film’s fearless cameraman) set off to investigate the Exclusion Zone around Chernobyl. There they find abandoned and looted buildings full of broken glass and creepers, a landscape straight out of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). Fedor puts the setting to use to shoot his own strange film clips featuring himself, naked, wrapped in clear plastic, and carrying a flashlight on a stick as he paces over piles of abandoned gas masks.
In a sequence that may induce vertigo in some, he and Artem climb the Duga to film from the top of what, it turns out, was a massive low-frequency radio transmitter. During the Cold War, this giant apparatus of metal lace emitted a constant clicking noise, referred to in the West as the “Russian Woodpecker,” hence the title. Later, Fedor, Chas and Artem track down elderly Soviet scientists, military men and Communist Party apparatchiks, filming some of them with hidden cameras as they down vodka with filmmakers, to investigate further. Their findings reveal what the Duga was a failure, and that the $7 billion cost of its construction was about to create a massive scandal. Fedor’s credibility-stretching theory is that one Moscow bureaucrat in particular gave the order to push the Chernobyl reactor to the limit until it blew as a means of covering up the Duga fiasco and saving his own skin.
Gracia and to an extent Artem seem less convinced, but the testimony from interviewees makes clear that there was and is definitely something fishy going on. Records have been tampered with, and the Ukrainian secret police make ominous threats against Fedor and his family. It becomes clear that even though the Soviet state was dissolved in 1991, the Russians are still bent on controlling things in Ukraine.
The neo-Soviet atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion spreads like a contagion, at one point infecting even Fedor who tries to recant everything he’s said and flee the country. When Artem starts filming him in secret, things have gotten seriously weird. In a way, the Independence Square protests, documented also in Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan, bring everyone back to their senses by uniting them in resistance to oppression.
Given the film’s narrative encompasses the death of thousands of people at various points in Ukrainian history, and most recently hundreds in the recent conflict (Artem himself is shot and nearly killed during the protests), Gracia finds the humor in many of the situations, and has properly Slavic feel for the absurd. Bouncy animation and fish-eye lens are frequently deployed to create a stylized sense of playfulness which only enhances the film’s many compelling qualities.
Production companies: A Roast Beef Productions, Gracia Films, Rattapallax production
With: Fedor Alexandrovich, Artem Ryzhykov, Vladimir Komarov, Vladimir Usatenko, Georgy Kopchinski, Vladimir Musiets, Vadim Prokofiev, Natalia Baranovskaya
Director: Chad Gracia
Producers: Mike Lerner, Chad Gracia, Ram Devineni
Cinematographer: Artem Ryzhykov
Editors: Chad Gracia, Devin Tanchum
Composer: Katya Mihailova
Sales: Roast Beef Productions
No rating, 80 minutes