The Russian Woodpecker
These video clips and director’s statement were submitted by Chad Gracia as part of the 2015 PEN World Voices Online Anthology. Gracia is the director of the film The Russian Woodpecker, a conspiracy thriller documentary that follows eccentric Ukrainian artist Fedor Alexandrovich as he unmasks a Chernobyl disaster cover-up amid clouds of war and revolution. Winner of a Grand Jury Prize at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, the movie takes audiences to the front lines of the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia and its ramifications for the whole world.
Chad Gracia’s event: On Ukraine from the Inside.
In the summer of 2013, I was working on a play in Kiev when our set designer, Fedor Alexandrovich, whispered to me about the “Russian Woodpecker,” a Cold War radio signal that many Americans believed was a Soviet mind-control device. For Fedor, the antenna represented a very personal mystery, and he was determined to confront it despite the fact that it stood in an off-limits military facility in the middle of the radioactive Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Despite never having made a film, I agreed to make a ten-minute documentary about this Cold War weapon.
It soon became clear that Fedor and I had different approaches to the project. I wanted to interview scientists; he wanted to re-enact some “dreams” he had about the giant device, which included the construction of a raft of mirrors upon which he would sail naked across a radioactive sea. Because I found him to be such a passionate and fascinating character, and I thought his story could serve as a lens through which to understand the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe (of which he is a survivor), I agreed.
I ended up following him for a year as he stumbled upon a massive cover-up and clues that connected the Russian Woodpecker and the Chernobyl explosion. During the course of his investigation, Ukrainians revolted against their corrupt, pro-Russian government, and Fedor grew more unstable as his research and the revolution began to intersect. As he put the pieces of his puzzle together, he received terrifying warnings from the Ukrainian secret police (at that time, under the control of the pro-Russian President Yanukovych) to stop his investigation or risk the safety of his family. With violence increasing on the street and our cameraman shot by snipers, Fedor and I began to question each other’s actions and motives. We also both suspected the other of filming a parallel movie—alongside the purported documentary—with secret cameras. At least one of us was.
The Russian Woodpecker is the story of Fedor’s journey, and I hope the film will provide insights into the difficulties Ukraine faces as it tries to free itself from its dark Soviet past. This mystifying and magnetic painter—traumatized and irradiated by Chernobyl, hopeful about his country’s potential European future, paranoid because so many of his ancestors were murdered by the Soviets, and conflicted about whether to stand up when he himself is threatened—is a symbol of Ukraine itself.
Clips from The Russian Woodpecker