Review: The Russian Woodpecker (Gracia, 2015)

Still from the movie The Russian Woodpecker

Fedor Alexandrovich, the subject of firsttime director Chad Gracia‘s documentary The Russian Woodpecker, is a Ukrainian Elijah Wood lookalike with yellow smoke-stained teeth and bulging, deranged eyes. An artist and activist, Alexandrovich embarks on a quest to uncover the root causes of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, of which he and his family were victims (even now, radioactive strontium still resides in Fedor’s bones). Along with Alexandrovich’s friend Artem Ryzhykov, the film’s cinematographer, Gracia accompanies Fedor into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and on his interviews with various officials high and low who were involved in the Chernobyl plant’s operations–from a prominent nuclear physicist to one of the plant’s guards. In the course of his investigation, Alexandrovich uncovers suspicious links between the nuclear disaster and the construction of a large radar (named the Duga-1) in Chernobyl’s vicinity, a relationship that suggests that the explosion was no accident but rather an elaborate coverup scheme originating from as high up as the Soviet Central Committee.

Though mostly lost to modern popular knowledge, the Duga radar haunted the Western imagination during the Cold War. Broadcasting in the short wave radio bands, it sent out a repetitive tapping, which led to its being nicknamed the Russian Woodpecker. In the paranoid atmosphere of that time, some, speculating about its purpose, suggested that it was a Soviet mind control experiment. But, besides its physical proximity, what does the Russian Woodpecker have to do with Chernobyl? You’ll have to watch the documentary to find out Fedor’s fascinating conspiracy theory.

Coincident with Alexandrovich’s Chernobyl probe, massive protests break out in Kiev. Though Ukraine has been independent since 1991, many Ukrainians view Putin’s Russia as a return to a Stalin-era Soviet Union. Outwardly the USSR has been dismantled, but in Ukraine many of its elements (such as the secret police) and its leaders are still in place. Chernobyl, a Muscovite project that detonated on Ukrainian soil with mostly Ukrainian victims, embodies to some degree the unresolved anger of a former subject state, a sore point that may feel all the more tender with the renewed threat of occupation. And thus Alexandrovich’s inquiry takes on new significance.

If this were a film uncovering the truth of what happened at Chernobyl, it would be a failure. As you might have guessed, had Fedor’s charges been anything more than a theory, we would have heard about it by now. (Still, his accusations are more than merely evocative. Almost 30 years later, many of the documents related to the Chernobyl disaster are destroyed, still classified, or otherwise unavailable. Perhaps something is rotten in the state of Denmark.) As Gracia maintains, however, The Russian Woodpecker is the story of Fedor’s personal and artistic journey in making sense of a childhood trauma and an enduring family history of political persectuion. As such, Alexandrovich makes for an eccentric and captivating subject. And if the film feels at time schizophrenic–do we believe Fedor or are we smiling behind our hands at him? is he credible or a nutcase? or both?–this seems to be largely intentional.

The film’s editing could have been a little tighter. There are several “gotcha” moments that fall flat because the connections aren’t drawn explicitly enough or seem dubious. And then sometimes the documentary feels scattered as it only half-heartedly chases down all the different threads of the narrative (Fedor’s familial history, Ukraine’s historical relationship with Russia, the credibility of Fedor’s ideas and his fear, the Duga’s raison d’être). They’re all clearly interesting, but covered so superficially they don’t feel quite relevant. In interviews, Gracia admits to the challenge of “giv[ing] people an appropriate context.” If only he had risen just a little more to that challenge.

The Russian Woodpecker has the raw materials to be an enormously compelling film. (Clearly the Sundance Film Festival thought so, too: it awarded the film its World Documentary Grand Jury Prize.) Though the film’s flaws obscure some of that potential, it’s still a worthwhile watch. (And the holes can be filled in by reading this Q&A with Chad Gracia.)