Film Review: ‘The Russian Woodpecker’


Chad Gracia’s superb doc The Russian Woodpecker (2015) premièred at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and rode out of town with the Grand Jury Prize. A chilling account of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, it ties together the lead up to this tragic event and subsequent Soviet government cover-up, as well as pointing toward a possible conspiracy that the blast was purposefully engineered by a senior Moscow official to distract from the failure of the USSR’s astronomically expensive and largely unknown Duga antenna.

Just as Ukraine has been a perennial divide between East and West, Gracia links the historical and the contemporary via Kiev’s Maidan square: the peaceful protests in early 2014 that descended into state-sponsored bloodshed; Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych fleeing the country; Vladimir Putin’s relentless surge into Europe. Rarely is the investigative voice of a documentary shrouded in as much mystery as the subject it depicts. Fedor Alexandrovich – an artist of many guises – was four years old in 1986 and to this day carries traces of strontium in his bones. Cinematographer Artem Ryzhykov states that Fedor divides opinion among peers, some considering him a deranged, unwashed madman, the more enlightened seeing a genius from another time and place.

Admitting to no journalistic or political experience, Alexandrovich’s methods and credibility may be questioned by some but his fearlessness and personal connection to the tragedy, together with a boyish enthusiasm and, at times, naiveté mean his quest for the truth is mesmerizing. With a bird’s nest of hair, scruffy beard, bulging eyes and yellowing bucked teeth, he is certainly an unusual sight to behold but below the surface lies an intelligent, articulate, deeply aggrieved and yet fiercely determined figure. Speaking with poetic eloquence throughout, the romanticism of his offering of red wine to the radioactive Kiev sea – imbibing it was proposed to protect against radiation – is tinged with a knowing and tragic irony. It is with a thirst for answers and atonement, shame for the past and fear for the future that Alexandrovich interviews numerous individuals from the Duga project, government officials, historians, engineers and workers.

Although it could be attributed to Alexandrovich pecking away at Soviet dinosaurs who shift awkwardly in chairs when posed difficult questions, the title refers to the radio signal that was first emitted from the Duga on 4 July 1976. Its purpose remains unclear – signal jammer, tool of mass brainwashing, a missile detection system – but its essential failure is seen as motivation enough for what occurred a decade later. The jump from suggestion to concrete proof is not an easy one to make but Gracia, Alexandrovich and Ryzhykov come close to connecting all the dots. An unveiling of the past with intrigue worthy of All the President’s Men and a warning cry for the future of an unstable region at the mercy of a tyrant, The Russian Woodpecker is an arresting, thought-provoking and seismically important creation that may not “intend to injure relations between Ukraine, Belarus and Russia” – as an opening disclaimer forewarns – but certainly should make these nations and the wider international community sit up and take notice.

Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens

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