THE RUSSIAN WOODPECKER Review: Scene of the Crimea
Watch enough new independent film releases in a year and creative trends can be spotted. I don’t mean the kinds of trends lamented by Film Twitter (too many superhero movies, too much found footage, etc.). I mean the kind of natural, organic trends that feel like filmmakers have found a new storytelling vein to tap. My first exposure to this (The Beginning) came in the form of a very good film that played at Hot Docs 2015: Chuck Norris vs. Communism. My next experience (The Coincidence) came in the form of a film I found on my own, the excellent Red Army. The former tells the story of how Romanian film lovers in the 1980s defied their oppressive government, smuggled into the country bootleg VHS tapes, and held secret movie parties. The latter documents the history of the mighty Russian national hockey team, its rise to global dominance, and its eventual fall.
If the common ground you guessed is “1980s-Based Soviet-Themed Documentaries,” go to the head of the class. The latest entry here, the entry that moves this entire cinematic experience away from The Coincidence an into The Trend, is The Russian Woodpecker, an astounding documentary from first-time filmmaker Chad Gracia.
In April 1986, when the Soviet Union was still in its Cold War existence and Ukraine was still a part of it, an unthinkable event occurred: an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant released massive amounts of radiation into the air, doing untold long-term damage to the people in the region and forcing the immediate evacuation of tens of thousands of people. One of those people … a child at the time … was Fedor Alexandrovich. Decades later, Fedor is something of a Renaissance Man; he’s a father, a pacifist, and an artist with skills in several media. He’s also a curious one—curious about why, to this day, there are still unanswered questions about the Chernobyl disaster. He’s also curious about an old Soviet map on which, near Chernobyl, is something labeled “Boy Scout Camp.” Guess what? It’s not a boy scout camp. What begins as one man’s trip to the past and quest for the truth turns into something that is the stuff of Cold War spy novels, but it’s all true … or at least it might be.
It isn’t just that the elements of The Russian Woodpecker are so compelling on their own. There is this divine convergence of them that creates a film simultaneously gripping, mystifying, horrifying, and, at times, emblematic of something my old high school history teacher used to say: “Many things are too strange to be believed but nothing is too strange to have happened.”
The setting and history are foremost critical to the story, not just because of the disaster of Chernobyl, but because that disaster took place in a country—Ukraine—that has with Russia a shocking pre-Chernobyl past and a terrible post-Orange Revolution present. This political backdrop and its decades-long existence (that brief period of independence be damned) is deftly summarized by Gracia along three main points on the timeline: Holodomor, the famine manufactured by Russia that claimed the lives of millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s; Chernobyl, where the single-worst nuclear power plant accident in history occurred in the 1980s; and Maidan, the main square in Kiev, where protests against Russian oppression happen today. Gracia punctuates these moments in time with chilling footage and photographs of victims of these atrocities.
With the stage set, Gracia establishes his key players. The hero is the Renaissance Man, the artist and pacifist who wants nothing more than to know who is to blame for his bones being radioactive. And it’s because he’s a Renaissance Man, always observing and examining and questioning, that he draws the conclusion he does. (It’s so shocking, I dare not whisper it here, lest I deprive you of one of the great moments of film in 2015.) The villain is the Old Soviet Guard; there are interviews with old school Soviet science and military guys, interviews almost exclusively conducted by Fedor that, when the questions he asks them wander into remotely accusatory (of the Soviet government) territory, turn to moments fraught with worry that if too much is said, even after all this time, there will be old school retribution. It’s a palpable fear, and what makes it so believable is that the fear doesn’t just come from the old school science and military guys. When Fedor’s parents consider his theory about what actually caused the Chernobyl event, they are genuinely frightened that the KGB will come for him and maybe them too.
With everything place, and with Fedor framed as a modern-day Ukrainian David slinging stones at a reborn Communist Goliath, all that remains is his present-day story. It’s spellbinding. Gracia takes all the passion, conviction, and pinpoint calculation of an attorney building his case and turns Fedor loose on that case. It’s the filmmaker’s masterstroke. Fedor is a child of Chernobyl, so his interest is vested. He is smart enough to know which questions to ask and of whom, yet brave(foolish) enough to actually ask them. And as an artist (and probably one who has struggled at some point in his life), he has a demeanor that disarms people (until he hits the with questions) combined with a tenacity to remain undaunted in the face of insurmountable challenges.
The great story of past and present, the great storyteller in Fedor, and the great storytelling by Gracia combine in that divine convergence to create a documentary of considerable historic consequence.
(Note: While the film’s title has something of a secret code-name ring to it, it’s actually the name of a device that is at the heart of Fedor’s quest for the truth, and the linchpin of his theory about Chernobyl.)
It is difficult to overstate how incredible writer/director Chad Gracia’s storytelling work is here. The Russian Woodpecker is a film that begs to be as confusing and cumbersome as possible, with competing dichotomies of past and present, Cold Warriors and pacifists, history and art, history-makers and artists, and science and conspiracy. Yet somehow Gracia not only makes sense of it all, he presents it in a way that rivals some of the best dramatic fiction out there.