The winner of the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival this year, and of the Sinofsky Prize for Best Feature Documentary (named after the late Bruce Sinofsky, Paradise Lost Trilogy) at the Montclair Film Festival, the Chad Garcia directed The Russian Woodpecker is a tremendous paranoid thriller – the sensory-charged chronicle of an obsessive and personal investigation that takes its subject to the front lines of a revolution.
Eccentric Ukranian artist Fedor Alexandrovich was just four years old when the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded and radioactive drizzle covered Northern Europe in 1986, but it had a profound effect on him. Adjacent to the reactor was a billion dollar Soviet-era construction called the Duga, which transmitted a curious and sinister clicking noise (the ‘Russian Woodpecker’ of the title) across the airwaves. In his attempts to learn more about what happened to the power plant, he becomes interested in this mysterious antenna.
Fedor interviews former Soviet officials and scientists about the structure’s purpose and the part it may have played in the Chernobyl disaster and discovers that the Duga was one of the USSR’s secret Cold War weapons built to penetrate Western communications. His investigations lead him to a terrifying conclusion that explains not only the Duga’s role in the disaster, but the cruel treatment of Ukraine by its Russian neighbours.
Alexandrovic argues that the increasingly apparent failure of the Duga led to officials’ decision to provoke the Chernobyl disaster. A call was made by a top Russian nuclear regulator to the workers at the plant to carry out a dangerous action that led to the meltdown. This was at the behest of one of the chief architects of the Duga, a man who had a lot to lose if the station’s failures were discovered.
In addition to this, Alexandrovich also raises an awareness about the potential reach of Vladimir Putin’s militant power and how he could wreak havoc in not just Ukraine, but other former Soviet states. He says, during the film’s resoundingly powerful conclusion as he address to the crowds in the Maidan Revolution Square during the height of the protests, that the “undead Soviet ghoul is pushing us towards World War III.”
Many of the powerful men he is granted access to aggressively dismiss his theory, but he manages to convince some former Duga engineers to risk their reputation (and lives) to help him uncover the truth. Aside from a small crew of friends and willing revolutionaries – Artem Ryzhykov, the film’s cameraman, turns the tool on himself at one point and comments about Fedor’s psyche, and how he felt when Fedor was going to give up – Fedor is all-but on his own.
Artem at one point calls Fedor a coward, so paranoid about the harm that could come to his family that he is willing to give up the film and destroy everything they have uncovered. Artem visits Fedor and secretly films their meeting, and Fedor reveals that he had been approached by Russian secret police as a result of all of their research. He’s scared. He faces a tough decision: does he tell the world what he knows, or give up the film and keep quiet? This film offers context for the war between Russia and the Ukraine – and leaves viewers with a sound theory for just what happened at Chernobyl. All in 75 minutes. Even when Fedor leaves Ukraine for a stretch, Artem continues to document the battlegrounds, dodging sniper fire from the pro-Russian separatists.
The Russian Woodpecker is a very unusual documentary but is exceptionally efficient and complex. Fedor is unlike any other interviewer I have seen, and his seemingly-impossible mission takes him to the frontlines of revolution. In the interviews we see him often quietly contemplating the answers, processing the responses (the lies he suspects) and trying to keep his emotions in check. He is an artist who should be completely out of his depth, here, but what he uncovers is really astounding. He is a young man (with wisdom beyond his years) and yet he manages to connect the dots and solve this sinister puzzle. This film reveals his heroics, and demands recognition as a biography and a political and historical expose.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Chad Garcia
Writer(s): Chad Garcia
Starring: Fedor Alexandrovic
Runtime: 80 minutes
Remaining SFF Screening Dates: Monday 8 June 2.00pm (Dendy Opera Quays)