Fedor Alexandrovich at an abandoned school in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (FilmBuff)
In September of 2013, American Chad Gracia — a writer, tutor, and former Slavic studies major — found himself in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. Tired of traveling, he decided to stick around and stage a production of Karenin, a new take on the Anna Karenina story. Instead, thanks to a persistent set designer and the political turmoil in the country, Gracia, now 46, wound up making the remarkable documentary The Russian Woodpecker, which won a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year and casts a skeptical eye on another era of Russian history: the tail end of the Soviet Union.
The documentary — out in theaters and on VOD Friday — focuses on Fedor Alexandrovich, a wide-eyed and wild-haired 33-year-old artist who worked for a time building sets for Karenin and who was born in the shadow of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine. He was a small boy when the plant melted down in 1986, releasing toxic levels of radiation across Eastern Europe, and he lived in an orphanage for a time after the catastrophe. Alexandrovich grew up with radiation in his bones and deep scars on his psyche, and he made it his mission to uncover the true story behind the disaster that shaped his life and his country. In The Russian Woodpecker, Alexandrovich acts as the audience’s guide as he pursues the truth about Chernobyl and the potential connections between its meltdown and a bizarre military relic of the Cold War, all while getting caught up in the unrest in the modern Ukraine.
“It’s a film about an irradiated boy trying to come to terms with what he considers to be the greatest crime of his life,” Gracia tells Yahoo Movies. “And the impossibility of finding truth in a totalitarian state, even if it’s been supposedly dead for 20-odd years.”
Perhaps appropriately, the relationship between filmmaker and subject started with a mystery. “During our first rehearsal [for Karenin], he pulled me aside and said, ‘This play is not that interesting. You should follow me to Chernobyl,” Gracia says. “He used to whisper in my ear, ‘Come meet the Russian Woodpecker.’”
After enough pestering, Gracia agreed and Googled the strange bird of Alexandrovich’s whispers. It turned out that “the Russian Woodpecker” was actually called the Duga and was a gigantic over-the-horizon radar tower built in 1976 in the town of Chernobyl — it got its nickname courtesy of the “tap tap tap” sound it produced on radios. When it went up, baffled, Red-panicked Americans thought it might be a Soviet attempt to control their minds or maybe even the weather. In reality, it was meant to jam American satellite signals, though it was largely an expensive failure.
Gracia’s interest was piqued by the huge steel artifact rusting in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the massive plot of land around the power plant that’s so contaminated, humans are banned from entering. In September 2013, Gracia agreed to investigate and make a short documentary that explained the history of the Duga and what it is like today.
The intent was to put the little doc on YouTube, but the duo quickly got sucked into the still-shadowy world of Soviet history; the film began to focus on the potential conspiracies that they discovered in their interviews with former Soviet officials. Officially, the Chernobyl meltdown was determined to have been caused by both human error and structural deficiencies, but the interviews they secured began to suggest otherwise — at least to Alexandrovich, who is wide-eyed and driven; it’s often suggested that he’s either a genius or a kook … or maybe a bit of both.
“I’m a skeptic at heart and thought Chernobyl was sort of an open and shut case,” Gracia says. “But as we started interviewing people — the head of the Soviet Union’s investigation committee, the head of Ukraine’s Investigation committee — they all looked at me and said, ‘There was a cover-up.’… The first colonel that we met kept going on and on about Stalin, and his hand would start shaking whenever Fedor asked him about this particular antenna. And so Fedor started thinking, ‘Hmm, maybe they’re hiding something?’”
Alexandrovich, Gracia and Artem Ryzhykov at Sundance (Getty Images)
Alexandrovich, though lacking in any previous experience in science, politics, or espionage, began pursuing these leads. They spent months interviewing former Communist Party members and military leaders, earning access with a potent mix of vodka, sweet talk, and appeals to their loyalty to a long-dead empire. Many were unwilling to participate in any conversation as long as Gracia was in the room; eventually, their cinematographer, Artem Ryzhykov, was forced to use hidden cameras and, at one point, they rented a special apartment with a fake wall that allowed Gracia to watch and direct contentious interviews in secret. “I underestimated that the tentacles of the Soviet Union were still alive,” he says. “I thought this was ancient history.”
Midway through the film, Alexandrovich develops the conspiracy theory that drives the rest of his quest: that the official in charge of the Duga, afraid of punishment for his expensive flop of a radar tower, ordered the Chernobyl meltdown in hopes that it would damage the tower and distract from his failure. Alexandrovich received mixed messages about his theory; even Gracia was skeptical. “I told Fedor near the end that I thought it was still a little bit far-fetched, that someone, just to save their career, would do such a drastic thing,” Gracia recalls. “He looked at me with these ‘you poor naive American” eyes, and said, ‘In this part of the world, people have murdered millions for much less.’”
Alexandrovich’s paranoia was amplified by both the political protests (and eventual revolution) in the Ukraine in 2013 and 2014, and the threats he began to receive from Ukrainian officials who had caught wind of the documentary. As the revolution against pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych intensified and threats against Alexandrovich grew, he became so scared for his family that he decided to abandon the film altogether.
The Duga-3 (YouTube)
“[Alexandrovich] recanted his theory — he wanted to delete all the material,” Gracia remembers. “That’s when Artem decided we’d film him with a secret camera. I said that I felt bad about that, and Artem said, ‘Don’t worry, he’s been filming you with a secret camera as well.’ And Artem was filming us both with secret cameras, because he figured ‘If these guys can’t get to the bottom, I will.’”
For a while, Alexandrovich disappeared, leaving the film in limbo. Assuming that he’d never complete the project, Gracia packed up his gear and went home to New York. But as the revolution against the government hit its peak, Alexandrovich returned to Kiev, which brought Gracia back, as well.
“I don’t know why he came back,”[BL1] Gracia admits. “He really believed that if we showed our film to Ukrainians, that it would remind them of the horrors of the Soviet Union, and that it would help prevent the east from going back into Russia’s orbit. I think that’s very naive — the belief in the power of art, a documentary — but Fedor really felt that.”
The return did not come without risk. At one point, Ryzhykov was shot at by snipers, whose bullets hit both his camera and his bicep — they had to raise money on Kickstarter to get a new camera. And even today, Alexandrovich continues to fear for his safety. He never was able to prove that his theory was anything more than that, but his odyssey did reveal just how strong a grip the Soviet Union still has on Eastern Europe.
“To this day I don’t know if Fedor put together all the radioactive puzzle pieces in the exact right way, but the questions he’s asking are important,” Gracia says. “The ghosts linger and add this surreality to everything.”