Documentary review: The Russian Woodpecker @ Doc Lounge

by Michael N. Oti, photos by Giang Pham

When producer Chad Garcia agreed to film Fedor Alexandrovich’s theory of what happened at Chernobyl, what he had in mind was a five-minute video that was at most going to make it to YouTube. He was dead wrong. ‘The Russian Woodpecker’ turned out to be a 1 hour and 22 minute film which won the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, as well as the International Documentary Association’s ‘Best Cinematography – 2015’.

Revisiting old ghosts
Chad Garcia met Alexandrovich in Kiev to work on a play, and every time they had a break,  Alexandrovich would whisper his idea to Garcia. After three weeks of pestering, Garcia decided that he was going to do a five-minute YouTube video. The producer admits that his idea was more of a psychological exploration of Alexandrovich’s mind and why he was obsessed with the disaster, than a purely journalistic piece. As the production trod along, Garcia realised that Alexandrovich was onto something.

The shooting of the film endured certain challenges. There was a point when Alexandrovich was terrified after being threatened by the secret police of Ukraine and demanded Garcia to delete all footage and interviews  done. The production team did it, but fortunately for the producer already had hard copies of the footage in New York. Nobody could say for sure what the Ukrainian Police were going to do.

Chad Garcia in the Q&A (photo by Giang Pham)

Chad Garcia in the Q&A (photo: Giang Pham)

The giant antenna

In 1976 a persistent pecking noise emanating from the heart of the Soviet Union woke the world. With the history of world wars still fresh in the minds of many, it was thought to be a new weapon fashioned by the Soviet Union to control the world, and became known as the ‘Russian Woodpecker’. Theories of what the sound was arose, but it remains a mystery. For many, its plausible source was this giant antenna built to intercept communication from the United States of America.

Did it work? Many didn’t believe it. It sat there, a monstrosity overlooking the town of Chernobyl. So when 10 years later a disaster occurred in the town, tongues started wagging. The official explanation for the disaster was given, but many didn’t believe it. 28 years later, this lack of belief takes shape in Alexandrovich’s mind, who decides to investigate a theory he has harboured for years. A theory that says that the Chernobyl disaster was orchestrated.

Fedor Alexandrovich, the protagonist
Fedor was born into a well-known family that provided Ukraine with artists and writers for several centuries. He currently teaches theatre design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kiev, and has worked on more than 40 theatre productions across Ukraine. In addition to the theatre, he is a poet and a painter, with several books of verse and more than 50 exhibitions of his paintings in galleries and museums in Ukraine.

Alexandrovich’s character is a complex mix of contradictions. The documentary opens with a contentious argument over the character: some say he is crazy, while others believe he is a genius – an artist who lives art in his every action. This conflict is reflected in the entire film. He is against the establishment, against his family, and against everybody else. As the director explains, ‘The Russian Woodpecker’ is not about the veracity of the protagonist’s theory; it is a depiction of a divided and paranoid Ukraine. A Ukraine that is constantly looking over its shoulder to ensure that Russia is not there.

Shooting amidst an uprising
The shooting of the film coincided with the Euromaidan Uprising of 2013. The Euromaiden uprising was a wave of demonstrations and civil unrest in Ukraine, which began on the night of November 21 with public protests in Independence Square in Kiev, demanding closer European integration. The uprising led to the toppling of the regime of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and his government, and eventually the 2014 Ukrainian revolution. The uprising is particularly important in telling the story, as it reflects the ghosts that haunt Alexandrovich and the Ukrainian people. The same ghosts that give birth to the theory of unseen Russian hands in the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl.

During the film, cinematographer Artem Ryzhykov risks his life and goes to the frontline of the Euromaiden uprising. There he is shot in the right arm and the production team loses contact with him for several days.

Doc-goers concentrated on the theme (photo by Giang Pham)

Doc-goers concentrating on the film (photo: Giang Pham)

Alexandrovich’s theory

Alexandrovich is convinced that the Russian Woodpecker was the pet project of a high-ranking Communist Party bureaucrat named Vasily A. Shamshin. After a spectacular failure that costs the Soviet Union some seven billion rubles, the giant steel structure sits there ‘useless’. Knowing that the cost of financial malfeasance is death, Shamshin personally commands the Chernobyl power-down test to proceed on the evening of April 25, knowing full well that the conditions were ripe for disaster. Alexandrovich is devoutly convinced that Shamshin figured a meltdown at Chernobyl would easily eclipse whatever problems plagued the Woodpecker.

In a conversation with producer Chad Garcia, this reporter pointed out to him that the evidence that forms the basis for the Fedor’s theory is circumstantial. He agreed, explaining that the film was not so much about the evidence, but rather a reflection of the state of mind of many Ukrainians, and in particular their fear of unseen Russian hands in their country.

Audience reaction
“There are lot of things to say about the film… I am from Russia so this whole fascination with conspiracy theories and paranoia is not unfamiliar to me, but I am not sure I am ready to say more. That was quite an interesting film and I imagine that audiences take it in different ways. Some people take it quite seriously, especially when you have a charismatic person as the protagonist. I am not sure I want to say more,” expressed Julija, a post-doc student from Aarhus University.

“I like it, it was entertaining but I am not sure I learnt anything new. I knew about the Chernobyl incident, but not about the conspiracy theories. This film presents a new angle, but I am not sure it is factual. I think there is some anti-Russian sentiment portrayed in the film. It’s hard to explain, but it seems there is a lot of paranoia from the Ukrainians,” said Lars, a Dane in the audience.

The Woodpecker returns
As the film nears its conclusion, Alexandrovich finds out that the ghosts of the Russian Woodpecker appear to have returned. Dormant for a decade and a half, the pecking sound resurfaced in December 2013. The film suggests that it is emanating from the heart of Russia. Its purpose? Unknown.


The Russian Woodpecker was screened at Doc Lounge Aarhus. You can find more information about the venue here.

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