The Russian Woodpecker: On the Tiniest Whim, by David Bax
There’s a killer documentary buried somewhere inside Chad Gracia’s The Russian Woodpecker. The titular phenomenon (not a bird) is monstrously compelling. But Gracia can’t decide between a straight-faced, informational approach or a more fantastical one that matches the personality of his human subject as well as the Soviet thinking that led to the Woodpecker in the first place. As a result, the film never gels, leaving the audience to do little more than shrug when they should want to run and tell their friends about this fascinating, massive thing known as the Russian Woodpecker.
Gracia starts by introducing us to Fedor, an eccentric Ukrainian artist whose lifelong health problems are possibly caused by the radiation cloud that hovered over the area where he grew up after the 1986 incident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. After an overlong recap of what happened that day and the days after, the fall of the Soviet Union a few years later and the beginnings of Ukraine as we now know it, Gracia finally gets to the meat of the story. Fedor, it turns out, harbors a conspiracy theory that supposes the disaster at Chernobyl was carried out intentionally and that it had something to do with a towering array of radio antennae that sits just kilometers from the power plant. It was an “over-the-horizon” radio system the Soviets built for early detection of missile launches. It created a powerful signal that was picked up by radios worldwide and consisted of a repetitive, staccato tapping sound. Hence, the Russian Woodpecker.
The Woodpecker, actually called a Duga by the Soviets, is located within the 30 mile “exclusion zone” around Chernobyl that remains highly irradiated and forbidden for civilians to enter except under controlled circumstances, not that that stops curious risk-takers. There have been plenty of photographs and documentaries (including this year’s excellent The Babushkas of Chernobyl) that have shown us the decayed and abandoned city of Pripyat and other eerie remnants inside the exclusion zone. Still, it would be hard to get tired of the bizarre and haunting imagery, of which there always seem to be new layers. In one scene, Gracia locates Fedor standing in the ruins of an elementary school classroom, the floor covered with disused gas masks.
Scenes like this show us leftover fragments of life under the USSR but The Russian Woodpecker is at its best when revealing how much of that time still thrives. When discussing Putin and the early days of what would become the Euromaidan Revolution, Fedor remarks, “It’s the Soviet Union again.” But time and time again, when Fedor meets with various government officials or Chernobyl higher-ups to question them about his theories, we see that for many of the older generations, it’s not “again” but “still.” The paranoia and self-preservation of that time is evident in these men’s refusal to discuss anything that could make the government look bad. One man simply ignores the questions and instead launches into an impromptu defense of Stalin. It’s as funny as it is unsettling.
These scenes, however, also showcase the film’s weakest spot. Fedor is plenty interesting as the film’s subject but when he steps into the role of interviewer, he’s simply too peculiar a presence to pull it off. The attention can’t help but be on Fedor when he’s in the frame and so the film suffers by allowing him to continue to be the focus even when he shouldn’t.
By the end, the revolution has overtaken the film. Simply by virtue of having been made during the time, it serves as an engrossing, ground-level look at the alternately rousing and terrible events that took place in Independence Square (though Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan remains the essential film on the subject). Unfortunately, Gracia and Fedor keep pushing the conspiracy angle through it all. Fedor does so with heartbreaking passion and it’s clear to see how much this need to blame someone means to him. For Gracia, though, the issue appears to hold little more than amusement. Consequently, The Russian Woodpecker is a film that does not appear to have any idea how it feels about itself.