THE RUSSIAN WOODPECKER || 2015, Ukraine / UK / USA || Documentary || Directed by – Chad Gracia / Written by – Chad Gracia / Produced by – Colin Davis, Ram Devineni, Cristina Esteras-Ortiz, Mike Lerner, Marina Orekhova, Jeff Roth / Music by – Katya Mihailova / Cinematography – Artem Ryzhykov / Editing by – Chad Garcia, Devin Tanchum / Running time: 80 mins.
The Russian Woodpecker follows Fedor, an eccentric Ukranian artist, as he investigates on his theory that the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 was more than an infamous accident. The investigation in fact revolves around the fact that Chernobyl was not only site to the nuclear power plant, but also a towering radar system named the Duga that aimed to track down American missile launches during the Cold War, but ended up being an expensive failure that might have cost the career of a very powerful man.
As the film progresses, we realize that Fedor is met with a hostility that reveals the longlasting tense relationship between Ukraine and Russia. In fact, scenes of present times’ ongoing protests and violence in the streets of Ukraine provide a worrying backdrop to the arch of the narrative itself, and seem to ask whether or not the Soviet threat in Ukraine ever came to an end, and whether or not Russia ever loosened up its grip on the country.
Director Chad Gracia moves the film along at a gripping pace, and unravels with urgency, as if we were witnessing the events as they happened. The documentary is constructed with a series of meetings between Fedor and people who were directly involved in the events of the nuclear power plant explosion, most of whom are determined to stop him in his tracks. Sometimes, the filmmakers have to confront them again fearlessly by using spying tactics, with hidden cameras, just to uncover truths that will allow them to continue in their pursuit of the truth. There is a slight irony to be found in this theme of getting comeuppance by using enemy tactics.
As the film progresses, and Fedor comes closer the truth, threats are placed on his life and the life of those closest to him by higher and mysterious powers, causing him great worry that might put an end to his “mission”. The fact that the film starts with a title card saying that the film in no way intends to disturb the relationship between Russia and Ukraine is somewhat suspicious, and later revealed as a demand made in bulling fashion by such higher powers.
Aside from the excitement of the investigation, The Russian Woodpecker is as a haunting portrayal of the repercussions of the past and, in particular, of the Cold War and the Soviet regime. What humanizes the topic considerably is Fedor himself, the charismatic protagonist of the film, whose childlike excitement to uncover the truth and his strong willed determination in the face of injustice is as inspiring as it is endearing. While he might be a slight exhibitionist, he is also quite an ordinary man – he is a son and the father of a son. In the interview sequences, he is always quick to describe himself as being an ordinary Ukranian, rather than some sort of an authoritative figure. In his final speech, as he talks to a large crowd of protesters gathered around a stage, he blurts out his conclusions facing the threat of immediate arrest, and his recitation is far from recalling that of a well rehearsed politician. – 5/5