Chad Gracia's Sundance-winning documentary claims nomination for prestigious International Documentary Association Award
Winston Churchill famously said of Russia, "It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma."
The Kremlin's determination to obfuscate, to deter inquiry, to guard secrets kept many a mystery under wraps in the Soviet era, not the least of which was the cause of the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl that befell Ukraine in 1986, when that country was still firmly a part of the USSR [one sees the same pattern of misinformation in Moscow's response to the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Eastern Ukraine].
"Soviet Union is empire of lies," as Ukrainian artist Fedor Alexandrovich puts it, in his broken English.
Alexandrovich is the subject of The Russian Woodpecker, the Sundance Award-winning documentary by Chad Gracia, which this week earned a Best Documentary Feature nomination for the prestigious International Documentary Awards.
Alexandrovich was just four years old when the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown devastated Ukraine. He, like many other children in the nuclear fallout zone, was eventually evacuated from Kiev, The Russian Woodpecker centers on Alexandrovich's provocative theory about the real cause of the disaster: he believes the accident was triggered deliberately to divert attention from the failure of a gigantic radar antenna known as the Duga, which stands within the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
Woodpecker, at heart then, is an investigative film -- an effort to get to the bottom of Chernobyl but perhaps more pressingly, to plumb the soul of a poetic and eccentric artist.
This film is an attempt to portray one man’s journey, Fedor Alexandrovich, who was irradiated as a four-year-old when Chernobyl exploded and who has spent a big part of his life trying to come to terms with that.
The Russian Woodpecker is available for viewing worldwide on iTunes, Amazon, Vimeo and Google Play.
Nonfictionfilm.com spoke with Gracia and Alexandrovich in Los Angeles, after they participated in a Q&A following an IDA-hosted screening of the film.
Nonfictionfilm.com: Chad, at the Q&A you said you met Fedor while working on theater projects in Kiev. How is it you came to be doing theater in Ukraine?
Chad Gracia: I used to do theater in New York in the 1990s back when with a very small budget you could put on a good show... Those days are long gone. There’s no theaters that are affordable. I had a lot of friends in Kiev. I spoke Russian. I lived in in Moscow after college. I studied Kremlinology when I was an undergrad and so I had some free time and I thought, let me see if I can do something in Kiev.
When I met Fedor [who was doing set design] I was so inspired by him that I just wanted to work with him on some project... For a very small budget [we] were able to put together an audacious plan for a really great play. It ultimately never went on because of the Revolution [of 2014].
Something about Fedor captured my imagination. I'm always interested in eccentric, mad geniuses because, well, they're fun to be around and they often -- if you can see through the fog -- you can find nuggets of gold and really powerful insights.
NFF: Fedor, what do you think about being described as "eccentric"?
[Editor's note: Gracia said Alexandrovich recently taught himself English by binge-watching Game of Thrones. In the transcription I have maintained his syntax, adding some parentheticals as needed for clarification]
Fedor Alexandrovich: All time [growing up] my mother speak me, "You will attract attention to yourself. It's very, very bad." [I promised], "No, I will not. I will be so small and not attract attention," [but] the more and more attention [I attracted].
Chad: But are you offended by the term "eccentric"?
Fedor: Absolute not.
Editor's note: The title of the film derives from a staccato radio signal that was emitted by the Duga antenna, intended in part to disrupt telecommunications in the West during the late Cold War period. The tapping rhythm led to the signal being dubbed the 'Russian Woodpecker."
NFF: How did the documentary project itself come about?
Chad: When Fedor started talking with so much passion about this 'Russian Woodpecker' -- about this [radio] signal -- and then when I learned about this Duga antenna that people believed [emitted] the signal, I was charmed... I was hypnotized to follow him. At first we thought it would be a five-minute film, then maybe seven minutes. But two things happened that changed that.
Number one, in our very first interview with a 90-year-old Soviet weapons designer we asked him about lots of radars. He gave us answers. But when we asked him about this particular Duga radar his hands started shaking and he changed the subject to the great virtues of Stalin. When we looked at the footage... it was clear that he was lying. And at that point I thought there might be something more mysterious here than we thought.
The second thing that happened [involved] Fedor's dream sequence. Fedor wanted to film his dreams and thought that that would help us find the truth. And those dreams were mad. The first one [we filmed] was inside Chernobyl in a kindergarten where we stumbled upon a whole room full of gas masks. It’s just almost terrifying in its strangeness. And we did some shooting [in there] and... later that night when I saw the footage it was one of the most beautiful things I had seen.
Chad: When I saw how beautiful his dreams could be that made me think, “Well, maybe this is going to be a 20 minute film.” And then we actually discovered that there could be one criminal behind the [Chernobyl] catastrophe it became clear that this demanded a full-length treatment, a full investigation.
NFF: Do you think we'll ever definitively know the purpose of the Duga antenna and, more importantly, whether its failure to operate properly precipitated the Chernobyl disaster -- which Fedor believes was a diversionary tactic?
Chad: Fedor and I have very different answers to that. I think we can be fairly certain that the antenna was an early warning system to detect intercontinental ballistic nuclear missile launches from America. Whether we can ever prove Fedor's contention that there's a connection between the antenna and Chernobyl -- I don't think we will ever be able to 100 percent prove that... But without the cooperation of Moscow -- which is almost inconceivable -- we will never get there.
Fedor: That is very dangerous question... I think that truth exists. If we ask, "Who [is responsible for] this crime?" that is one key. [Other parties] want people to think truth does not exist -- "Maybe something is true, maybe not."
Ukrainians live inside those jump cuts, because it’s in between those cuts where the truth lies.
NFF: You get the feeling in the film of how difficult it is to go up against state power, when interwoven into the definition of that state is secrecy.
Chad: When the health minister finally made an announcement [days after the 1986 Chernobyl explosion] they rushed the job. The minister spoke for an hour or so but they wanted to get it down to a few minutes [and] they also wanted to take out anything that would scare the people. And so what was shown on television was about a minute or two full of jump cuts. We spoke to many Ukrainians and they said until that moment they weren’t terrified. But when they saw this news report -- and they saw the health minister trying to calm everyone down but his head was jumping back and forth -- everyone knew that this was a piece of propaganda, that this was edited in a way to hide the truth.
What I often think is Ukrainians live inside those jump cuts, because it’s in between those cuts where the truth lies. And in that society everything was a jump cut. Everything important was hidden and cut out before it was presented to the world. So how do you make an investigation when all the important material... how do you find the truth when all the truth has been cut out of the movie of your life? All the facts are on the cutting floor. That’s what the Soviet Union did.
Editor's note: Gracia was working on the documentary in 2014 when the Ukrainian Revolution broke out. Alexandrovich took part in the protests against the government of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukoych [who eventually was ousted]. In the midst of the unrest Alexandrovich temporarily recanted his theories about the cause of the Chernobyl disaster, then disappeared, later reappearing in the midst of a violent assault by the Yanukovych-supported secret police. Later, of course, the Kremlin seized control of Crimea and has backed incursions into other parts of Ukraine.
NFF: An underlying theme of the movie is the question of whether the Soviet Union is reconstituting itself. And whether Ukraine represents the first battleground in that.
Chad: When we speak about the return of the Soviet Union there are two ways to look at this. One is the reconstitution of the geographic and physical power of the Soviet Union. Even though Russia has grabbed a piece of Ukraine, a little piece of Georgia, I don’t think we have to fear that a third of the world is going to fall under the Soviet flag. I don’t think that that’s imminent or that that’s a real threat.
But the Soviet Union was more dangerous not because it controlled territory but because it controlled people’s minds. It got into people’s minds and it made them stop thinking for themselves. People took orders from above, built their worldviews from what they were told, from the books they were told to read. People gave up responsibility for their own lives -- not all people, but many people... But I would say that the danger [is] the return of the Soviet way of thinking -- that is a real danger.
As Fedor says, everyone should be the artist of their own life and to find the truth themselves and through their dreams and through their work and through every action.
Fedor: The Soviet Union has half returned. What is it [about] the Soviet Union that is dangerous for the planet, for humanity? It is nuclear danger... [And the dangerous idea that] truth [does] not exist.
Chad: [translating Fedor's words] "It can't return because it never really left."
NFF: During the Q&A at the IDA screening, a Russian woman called your film a piece of anti-Russian propaganda. How do you as a filmmaker respond to such assertions?
Chad: This film is an attempt to portray one man’s journey, Fedor Alexandrovich, who was irradiated as a four-year-old when Chernobyl exploded and who has spent a big part of his life trying to come to terms with that and to come to terms with why so many people in his family, generations before him, were shot, executed, sent to Gulags, forced to turn in their relatives and to constantly live in a state of fear and paranoia. It’s Fedor’s story. If I was making a story about a Russian it would be a different story. So I can’t say anything to Russians except that here is a picture of a person’s real life. You may not like what he has to say, but this is his honest experience and we try to portray it as honestly as possible.
This woman tonight was implying that the Revolution in Ukraine was funded by America. She kept saying, “Who is behind this Revolution? Who is behind this film?” On the one hand it overstates the power of the US. If we were able to bring three million Ukrainians to the streets -- I mean it’s absurd. And I was there and these [were] students and grandmas and just people who were sick and tired of living in a corrupt society. And I can tell you for sure that we did not receive any funding from the [US] government. The Revolution happened organically and the film happened organically.
Chad: I have great love for Russia which may be hard for people to believe when they see the film. But I do think that A) it’s important to distinguish between the Soviet-thinking Russians and Russians who are bravely fighting against this return of Soviet thinking. And B) I think it’s the Russians who suffer more than anyone else from this sort of corruption and this propaganda and -- Fedor has said -- being forced to live in a world where truth is no longer respected or there’s not even a sense that truth exists. It’s the Russians that suffer from this.
I have great love for Russia which may be hard for people to believe when they see the film. But I do think that A) it’s important to distinguish between the Soviet-thinking Russians and Russians who are bravely fighting against this return of Soviet thinking. And B) I think it’s the Russians who suffer more than anyone else from this sort of corruption and this propaganda and -- Fedor has said -- being forced to live in a world where truth is no longer respected or there’s not even a sense that truth exists. It’s the Russians that suffer from this.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.