The real life protagonist of The Russian Woodpecker, Chad Gracia’s astonishing documentary feature, the winner of World Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2015, is the most fascinating ideas man you can imagine.
His name is Fedor Alexandrovich and he is an Ukrainian artist with a traumatic past: his ancestors were murdered by the Soviets, sent to gulags or forced to renounce their family, and he was only four years old in 1986 when the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown happened, an event that forced him to leave his home due to the toxic effects of irradiation. Now 33, he is a “radioactive man” with strontium in his bones and a singular obsession with the earth-changing catastrophe – why did it actually happen?
Chad met Fedor on the set of a play he was putting on in Kiev where Fedor worked as a set designer. Fedor kept whispering to Chad about the “Russian woodpecker,” a giant, mysterious antenna nicknamed such for the strange, constant clicking radio frequencies that it emitted during the Cold War and which had been terrorising the radio frequencies in Europe and America during that time, so much so that many Americans believed it to be a Soviet mind-control device.
For Fedor, this strange device that the Soviets built only 2 miles from the Chernobyl nuclear station, represented a very deep and dark mystery: what was its real use and was there more to the Chernobyl story than the Soviet government let on? Is it possible that there might have been a criminal mind behind the Chernobyl catastrophe that the world doesn’t know about? As incredible as this may sound, is it possible that Chernobyl was blown up on purpose??
These were questions without answers and just another “conspiracy theory” until the day Fedor decided to confront the Russian Woodpecker that is now rotting away in an off-limits military facility in the middle of the radioactive Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
In one of the most astonishing visual sequences of the film, Fedor is sailing naked across a radioactive sea on a raft of mirrors which he himself constructed following a dream he had about the mysterious device.
Steeped in a climate of paranoia, with the Russian Secret Police threatening Fedor into closing his investigation and all sorts of dangers lurking at every step of the way, Chad Gracia’s documentary is more fascinating than a Bond thriller!
Dana Knight: The Russian Woodpecker is a most compelling story. I loved the way the pieces of the puzzle were put together by Fedor’s inquisitive mind and the way you conducted the investigation that followed. What wasn’t perfectly clear to me is this: did Fedor form his theory about the Chernobyl disaster not really being an accident before you started shooting or is this incredible discovery a result of the film?
Chad Gracia: No, our main interest was in the antenna, our plan was to debunk the conspiracy theory that the antenna was a mind control device. He just had some sort of artistic fascination with this object, he described it to me many times but he spoke of it in terms of some sort of aesthetic urgency that he had about witnessing it, feeling it, approaching it. Fedor is very sensitive, he sort of follows his instincts, he has his own creative antenna. But I don’t think he had any rational idea for why he has to go there, he was just drawn to it.
Knight: In a sense, it would have been even more astonishing if Fedor put all the pieces of the puzzle together before you embarked on the investigation.
Gracia: Yes but as you see in the film, it only came about because people were very nervous when asked about the antenna. That made him suspicious. And Fedor says that he could never believe such a thing was possible, but that was actually the direction that his research took him. We came about it in a way naively, we really did not expect to find what we found. It was supposed to be a very short film about this antenna.
Knight: I know, but even if he had the idea to begin with, he would have probably only gradually disclosed his thoughts to you, because to hit you with all these crazy ideas from the start, it would have been too much for you to take on, I guess.
Gracia: Well, you would have to ask Fedor, he certainly is a very mysterious guy! But in my opinion it started more as just an investigation: there’s this strange object, this enormous antenna that no one knows much about, it’s standing next to Chernobyl, it’s dying to be filmed, it’s dying to be explored, it’s ready to be questioned. That’s what we did, without any assumptions at all when we started.
Knight: How did you get access to those Russian former high officials? That must have been difficult.
Gracia: Well, when we first reached out to them we didn’t say anything about me, an American, being involved, I would just show up. And after many months of getting nowhere, we realised that my showing up made them not really want to speak with us. That was a step in the wrong direction. So at that point we got a special apartment with a kind of a cubby where I could hide, so they never knew there was an American director involved. I used to Skype to send questions to the team and clarifications during the interview. The question as to why they agreed to meet, I think originally when our Ukrainian contact called them, she said, “Look, they want to talk about your life”. These guys used to be at the top of the Soviet pyramid, they were heroes of their day and now they are all forgotten, living on tiny pensions, in crumbling apartments and no one cares about them. So they have someone coming to talk about their youth and about their technological achievements which were quite significant. This antenna, we don’t have time to get into it in the film, but it spurred a lot of research into super computers in Russia. Being able to assess the signal was incredibly difficult. So they were very proud of what they achieved and they wanted to talk about it but not with an American.
Knight: I found that very funny, the way they became immediately suspicious when the word “American” was pronounced. They are basically still caught in the past.
Gracia: I was surprised too, I thought the Cold War was ancient history, I really did not expect these guys to still be living in that world. But Fedor was the one who kept telling me, “No, Chad, you don’t understand, the Cold War is still alive, the Soviet ghosts are still haunting Ukraine, they are everywhere”. I thought he was crazy. He was also the first one to say that the Soviet Union is coming back, there’s going to be war. And he said this to everyone who was listening but everyone thought he was crazy. This was months before the annexation of Crimea, or the events in Eastern Ukraine. Again Fedor is kind of an antenna, he’s like all great artists, he’s very sensitive to things before the rest of us.
Knight: The timing of your documentary was perfect in a way: the progression of the documentary found resonance in the Revolution that was happening around you. And this climate of paranoia, with the Russian Secret Police that started interfering with your project, and your own paranoia about the other team members filming a parallel film!
Chad: I know, it’s strange. It’s obviously unrelated that the Revolution broke out. And when I walked into the Chernobyl exclusion zone and when I got into the force-field of this antenna, my life became very surreal. And you’re right, the climate of paranoia engulfed us, as it eventually engulfed the whole city and the whole country. But that’s just a quirk of history and a sad fate for Ukraine, but it made our story so much more dramatic and timely than we expected it to be.
Knight: The moment the Secret Police interfered with your project was a key turning point in the film, you almost lost the project as Fedor wanted out. How did you get over that obstacle?
Gracia: Well, Fedor left and we had no film and I went back, I left the country trying to figure out how to salvage my project. And it was only when the Revolution kicked off that Fedor felt he had a patriotic duty to come back. This was three months later. But he had certain requirements. He said that he wanted to give the Secret Police final cut, final approval of the film, he told them that he would try to convince me of that. So we kind of agreed on that but within a week the Pro-Russian government fell and then luckily we never had to do that. Also we had to put the disclaimer, by way of a contract, Fedor was pressured to put this disclaimer in front of the film, that the film is not intended to disrupt relations between Ukraine and Russia. I guess Fedor also felt that having his theory out in the world would make him safer than if he was the only one who had the theory. So he felt that, paradoxically, by publicising the theory he was safer.
Knight: That’s actually the next question I wanted to ask: is Fedor safe now in Ukraine, is it safe for him to be there?
Gracia: In today’s situation, nobody knows who is safe and who is not safe in Ukraine. But when people ask Fedor if he feels he’s personally at risk, he answers: “Look, it’s not just me, it’s all of us. No one is safe as long as there’s such a madman at the helm of a nuclear armed country, who wants to bring back the Great Empire”. That’s what Fedor says. I think he’s safe, we hope he’s safe. We’ve been invited to Moscow to screen the film at a documentary film festival there. Fedor is terrified but I think I’ll go.
Knight: You’re not terrified?
Gracia: Look, I’m an American. As you probably know, an Ukrainian film director was recently sentenced to 20 years in prison following a mock trial. So Fedor is not entirely crazy to be nervous. But my hope is that the government there has much bigger worries than some documentary about some cover-up that happened 30 years ago.
Knight: Fedor is an amazing, fascinating character. Going back to how this project started, I understand that you two met on the set of a play that you were working on in Kiev.
Gracia: Exactly. And I immediately knew he was a special character, like out of a Dostoyevsky novel.
Knight: What is also amazing is that you don’t come from a film background, you did theatre, this is your very first venture into filmmaking.
Gracia: Yes. But the film is quite theatrical in some ways, you can definitely feel the influence. But my experience in theatre was also as a dramaturge, dealing with story-structure, so that helped me a lot. But it’s true, all of us were first time filmmakers. Our cinematographer ARTEM RYZHYKOV worked on something else before but this was his first major picture. He’s a genius.
Knight: He must be, the cinematography is incredible. The whole film is incredible.
Gracia: Yes, it was a magical, miraculous experience. The whole project, from concept, to how we got it financed, to our opening in New York on Friday and seeing people really enjoy it. People find it fascinating and they love it. That’s the best part about it.
Knight: You also mentioned you had a lot of footage. How did things go in the editing room, what did you decide to leave out and why? The film is very well put together, it is seamless.
Gracia: The editing was extremely complicated. We had five separate films that were apparently unrelated: Fedor’s dream, which was a long journey across Ukraine, we had the Chernobyl disaster, we had the technology of the radar, we had the conspiracy theory and we had the Revolution that was happening in Ukraine. And I was nearly at the end of my wits trying to figure out how to bring these stories together. And the moment when it all became clear for me is when I realised it’s really only one story: it’s the story of Fedor’s soul. The story of Fedor’s psychological journey. From the 4-year old irradiated child to the man who eventually stands up to the Soviet Union. At that point I decided to cut everything else, except for that which supported his journey. And it turned out that all of these things, the history of Ukraine, going back to what happened to his grandfather during the Revolution, even the antenna, all had elements that supported and even clarified and coloured Fedor’s journey. And I wanted the film to be very brisk, I wanted it to be short and feel like a thriller. I didn’t want it to be a 3-hour meditation. I wanted it to be an action thriller/detective story.
Knight: The fact that the film is short makes it even more impactful and it leaves you with a desire to see more. Maybe a sequel would be in order!
Gracia: Maybe, I’ll talk to Fedor about it. My thoughts were that I’d rather have people wanting more than being bored.
Knight: Where is the film on the festival circuit?
Gracia: We showed the film in Bucharest recently, I was there, it was lovely. And we’re going to Copenhagen next, the film is screening at CPH:DOX.
Knight: And do you have another film project you’re working on next?
Gracia: I have but it’s kind of top secret. In a couple of years I’ll hopefully have another film to chat to you about.
THE RUSSIAN WOODPECKER is opening in theaters in Los Angeles on October 30.