The Russian Woodpecker, 2015.
Directed by Chad Gracia.
As his country is gripped by revolution and war, a Ukrainian victim of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster discovers a dark secret and must decide whether to risk his life and play his part in the revolution by revealing it.
Coincidentally, just a week before seeing The Russian Woodpecker my friend and I had entered into a discussion about the Chernobyl disaster. She had mentioned that she knew of someone who had travelled to the disaster exclusion zone to photographically document the “depressing yet fascinating atmosphere of the place,” as he later described it. Having been sent the link to the album, I looked over the photographs eerily similar to the footage seen in Gracia’s gripping documentary, finding it impossibly difficult to contemplate a disaster of that magnitude without being intimately connected with it; something that Fedor Alexandrovich conveys honestly to his audience by describing his personal relationship with the disaster.
Winner of the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at the 2015 Sundance film festival, The Russian Woodpecker powerfully stands up next to other such equally ambitious cinematic achievements, such as How to Change the World and Dreamcatcher. Intricate and yet slightly convoluted, Gracia’s film is a carefully crafted narrative that interconnects three seemingly separate narratives, believing that there’s an underline current connecting them all.
Channelling the narrative of the Ukrainian revolution, the Duga radar system and the Chernobyl disaster through Fedor Alexandrovich’s art, Gracia’s documentary is one part investigatory inquiry and two parts conspiracy. The Russian Woodpecker reveals some truly frightening truths surrounding the Chernobyl disaster, with such memorable lines as “we were told red wine protects against radiation.” It becomes clearer in its presentation that such lies and neglect might have a secondary motive.
However, despite being one of the film’s most powerful attributes, Fedor’s connection to the disaster becomes more and more bias the further into the feature you progress. His obsession becomes transparently evident as he exclaims that someone must be to blame for the fallout of Chernobyl, undermining the validity of the film’s conspiracist theory by arguing that there must be a greater meaning behind Chernobyl.
An uncanny fascination has always surrounded the Chernobyl disaster, encouraging people to explore the pulsating post-apocalyptic landscape that still emits three times the radiation that is considered to be normal. Acting as both protagonist and antagonist, Chad Gracia uses Fedor’s personal obsession with the disaster, combining it with his theatrical style of art as a framework to propel the narrative. Fedor’s presence while walking through the Ukrainian wasteland is striking and deeply effective. It identifies the tragic effects the fallout had on his life and how it continues to form such a large part of his life now.
The Russian Woodpecker contains many remarkable moments, but some of the most poignant moments are related through Feodr’s art. Trudging through a sea of gas masks that litter the floor of a room in the exclusion zone, Fedor’s theatrical art performance is captivating and disturbing, blurring together two of the film’s best attributes.
As a teacher of theatre design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kiev, Fedor Alexandrovich’s presence on-screen is performance in of its self. Fedor’s eyes seem to shake to the same 10 hertz frequency of the woodpecker sound, moving frantically from side to side as he intently questions those connected to the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Visually, it is unmistakable that the Duga woodpecker noise is engrained in his mind as an obsession which becomes central to the propulsion of the film.
The Russian Woodpecker is a confusingly insightful and personal film. It identifies that Ukrainians past remains unforgotten, resurfacing in its recent crisis. It is daring and audacious in its approach, intent on exposing Chernobyl as a conspiracy by berating those who worked on the Duga radar system and those that worked at Chernobyl, believing that they are intimately connected. Yet its only downfall is its unclear structure and overzealous protagonist that disrupt the cohesion between art and politics that act as the films structure.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★