“The Russian Woodpecker,” Chad Gracia’s debut film, a twisty documentary about Ukraine and Russia’s troubled, often violent past and present, is as fascinating as any expertly scripted political conspiracy thriller.
The film’s protagonist, Ukrainian artist Fedor Alexandrovich, was four during the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown and for his safety was sent away from Kiev to an orphanage. But he didn’t escape the toxic fallout and has radioactive strontium in his bones. And an obsessive interest in the disaster’s shrouded truth in his being.
Through interviews with scientists and ex-Soviet hands (who remain true believers), in rooms dramatically lit and gorgeously shot by cinematographer Artem Ryzhykov, Fedor begins to strongly suspects that the accident wasn’t one. But rather it was an enormous (lethal) smokescreen designed to hide the failure of the massive radio antenna, the Duga, (built for a staggering seven billion rubles, twice the cost of Chernobyl), located just two miles from the nuclear site, to train its “Moscow Eye”on the United States’ nuclear arsenal.
Fedor travels to Chernobyl’s radioactive Exclusion Zone towns. In a spectacularly shot scene (reminiscent of Sandy Skoglund’s photographs), he stages a performance in a ruined classroom, wrapping his naked body in plastic, moving across a floor coated in ash and gas masks. And Fedor performs another work (which in a fiction film would be CGI), at the Duga (nicknamed “The Russian Woodpecker,” for the constantly clicking radio frequency it emitted), exploring its elegant structure, climbing to the top.
It is unclear whether Fedor literally believes that Chernobyl was intentionally exploded to camouflage Moscow’s engineering incompetence, or considers the theory a potent metaphor for decades of brutality inflicted on his country by the Soviet Union and now Russia, from the Stalin-made famine of the 1932-33 to Putin’s invading troops.
“The Russian Woodpecker” will open on Friday, October 16 at AMC Empire 25 and will be available on iTunes, Amazon, Vimeo and other online platforms and will open in Los Angels on Friday, October 30 at Laemmle Theaters Music Hall 3.