Ukranian artist Fedor Alexandrovich, a victim of the Chernobyl disaster, is not content that the event that irrevocably stained his country has gone unpunished. Largely thought of as an accident, with several workers at the convicted of criminal negligence, Fedor wants to unearth what really happened. Literally and figuratively casting a shadow over the site is the Duga over-the-horizon radio antenna.
The Russian Woodpecker is one of the most exciting and inflammatory documentary films that this reviewer has ever had the pleasure to watch. Fedora and his team have a seemingly (and near stupidly) logical approach to their investigation. It seems unconscionable that the USSR would have rolled the dice on experiments that could potentially have generation altering consequences. So who could have benefited from the Chernobyl disaster? And in asking this line of questioning it's almost impossible not to notice the colossal metallic structure at the epicentre of the radiation zone. The Duga antenna array, the source of the infamous "Russian Woodpecker" radio interference, was designed to be an over the horizon radar map that could detect missile launch over the continent and beyond into the United States. Ultimately though, Fedor suggests that it was an utter failure, and an inordinately expensive one. And like a blood hound, Fedor and his crew (especially cinematographer Artem Ryzhykov) interrogate and entrap former members of the Soviet hierarchy to verify their pretty wild theory.
Fedor is a wide eyed, forthright and engaging presence. He's not in the film trying to present the audience with objective facts, he's debating a very specific line of argument and if it weren't for his near feverish attempts to coerce you, you may have been able to allow this elaborate conspiracy wash over you. However, what begins to happen elevates The Russian Woodpecker to levels of viewing prescription. Once this small independent production begins to gain some notoriety the production shifts. The initial creative force, directing the inquisition and guiding the direction of the film is Fedor. As the film is near completion he's forced into hiding after threats by (who he claims are) Russian secret police attempting to defuse the documentary with disclaimers and actual violence. Cinematographer Artem Ryzhykov then takes the helm to attempt to realise Fedor's vision; that is until he's injured by sniper fire and his equipment was destroyed. This results in the editor (and later writer/director) Chad Gracia, who is unseen for the duration of the film; pieces together this acid accusation. Mixing personal moments with Fedor creating surrealist art in their investigative spaces, talking head interviews with those brave enough to share and hidden camera footage make this a formally messy but cohesive film.
Documentary cinema rarely feels this immediate and relevant. In the midst of Ukrainian political revolt, a few brave artists are putting their lives on the line to challenge an unforgiving superpower. The Russian Woodpecker sounds a lot like a canary whistling from the coal mine to me.
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Chad Gracia Written by: Chad Gracia Edited by: Chad Gracia