Winning this year’s Grand Jury World Cinema Documentary Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, is “The Russian Woodpecker.” Directed by American Chad Gracia, this provocative doc is told through the perspective of Ukrainian artist and radioactive man, 33-year-old Fedor Alexandrovich. Fedor seeks the truth about the cause of the Chernobyl Nuclear meltdown against the present day backdrop of political unrest in the Ukraine. The film is inventive, eccentric and downright ominous.
Fedor was a child of four when Cherynobly melted down in 1986. Like thousands of others, he and his family who lived in Chernobyl were exposed to the toxic effects of the nuclear disaster. Fedor still lives with radioactive strontium in his bones. This and the fact that his ancestors were killed during Stalin’s Gulag in the 1930s make Fedor mistrustful of the Soviet Union. He wonders if somehow someone in the former Soviet Union is to blame for Chernobyl.
Director Gracia met Fedor while he was in Kiev staging a play. Fedor was the play’s art director. Fedor is creatively brilliant in multiple disciplines, but he also is a bit “out there.” He shared with Gracia his obsession with “The Russian Woodpecker,” a gigantic steel pyramid of radio antenna towers known as the Duga. The Duga sits a couple of miles from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Could it somehow be involved in the 1986 catastrophe?
Gracia, Fedor and cameraman, Artem Ryzhykov investigate, which includes traveling to the Exclusion Zone around Chernobyl. Unbeknownst to most Americans, The Russian Woodpecker is a Cold War radio signal, originally thought to act as some sort of mind control. But later discovered to be a transmission signal that disrupted broadcast communications from the U.S. Interestingly, the signal began on July 4, 1976.
Gracia originally thought his first film would only be a short documentary. But as the three start to examine the history and interview workers, scientists and politicians who were involved in Chernobyl and Duga, the film morphs into an investigative thriller, with undercover cameras, secret recordings, etc. There are some direct parallels between the building of the tower, its failure to adequately do its job and the nuclear disaster. But the Soviet Union’s involvement also could just be coincidental. But then again, maybe not.
Concurrently, as the journey progresses, Kiev becomes a hotbed of public protests and dangerous showdowns with the military. (In fact, Fedor is visited by the Secret Police telling him to drop the investigation, and later cameraman Ryzhykov is shot during the protests, while his two colleagues are killed.)
It’s a scary expose that continues to evolve. Whether the documentary’s claims are true or not, at least it asks questions that were never answered about the disaster. The film also poses the bigger question – how long will the freedom to ask questions be allowed in present day Ukraine?
By the way, a new Woodpecker Signal has returned to the airwaves (after being off for 23 years). It comes from a similar Duga-like antenna structure somewhere in Russia.
Filmmaker event: Director Chad Gracia and subject Fedor Alexandrovich will participate in Q&A’s after the 7:10 p.m. screenings on October 30 and 31st at Laemmle’s Music Hall.
“The Russian Woodpecker” is 82 minutes, Not Rated and opens October 30 in Los Angeles at Laemmle’s Music Hall.