'Ukraine is full of ghosts of the past, trying to return to life," says artist and Chernobyl victim Fedor Alexandrovich. "I want to hunt down these ghosts," he says, "and silence them forever.”
In Chad Gracia’s new film The Russian Woodpecker, Fedor boldly attempts to exorcise one of the biggest spectres of Ukraine’s history: the disaster at Chernobyl. As he uncovers new evidence that points to a disturbing – if fantastical – theory behind its destruction, Fedor unearths a potential conspiracy that also presages an uncomfortable future for his country.
Gracia’s film follows Fedor, as he investigates unsettling links between the worst nuclear disaster in history and a mysterious Soviet facility nicknamed the ‘Duga’. A monstrous array of cages and cylinders, the Duga is an eerie Soviet contrivance built by the USSR during the height of the cold war. Its purpose was to interfere with the communication systems (or, as some have claimed, with the minds of the enemy). Yet when the costly machine proved woefully ineffective, Fedor theorises, the Chernobyl 'disaster' was instigated by Kremlin officials to blow up the Duga and conceal their own incompetency.
Though The Russian Woodpecker deals ostensibly with a wild conspiracy theory, the film is in fact as much about Ukraine’s future as it is about its past. When Fedor’s inquiry is interrupted by the outbreak of revolution in Ukraine, it becomes clear that determining the cause of the Chernobyl disaster is a moot point. Gracia expertly captures the personal and national turmoil facing modern day Ukraine as the country tilters on the brink of civil war.
Using the Duga as a metaphor for Russian interference in Ukraine, Gracia allows the eccentric Fedor to embody the very real fears of a nation to struggling to remain independent. But the The Russian Woodpecker is more than just a political statement. When a cameraman is shot by a sniper, Fedor experiences the same moral dilemma that has faced dissidents for centuries – when is the cost of freedom too high?
Gracia's fascinating film is part character study, part art-piece and part omen. Fedor, however wild and unruly, is unable to dispel the ghosts that still haunt Ukraine – and the fear of Putin’s interference is ever present. A conspiracy at Chernobyl may well be fantasy, but the climate that provokes such paranoia is very real.
Gracia manages to intertwine Fedor’s surreal artistry with the political drama tearing through contemporary Kiev in an engrossing feat of cinema. So controversial is the narrative of The Russian Woodpecker that Gracia's film has come under cyber attack from Russian trolls, with a false IMDB page already having appeared, listing the film not as a documentary but a work of fiction.
A fascinating narrative, expertly handled, it's no wonder The Russian Woodpecker won the Grand Jury Prize for World Documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
Catch The Russian Woodpecker in London cinemas from 20 November.
|What||The Russian Woodpecker documentary review|
|Where||Bertha Dochouse, The Brunswick, London, WC1N 1AW | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Russell Square (underground)|
20 Nov 15 – 31 Jan 16, 12:00 PM – 12:00 AM
|Price||£determined by cinema|
|Website||Click here to book via Dochouse|