A well-deserved Sundance grand jury prizewinner in the World Cinema documentary category, “The Russian Woodpecker” is a complex film about Chernobyl that is also surprisingly, richly enjoyable. Chad Gracia’s first feature juggles Ukrainian/Russian/Soviet history, a portrait of an eccentric artist, political current-events reportage, and a shocking yet increasingly plausible conspiracy about the catastrophic 1986 nuclear-reactor meltdown. The result should break into niche theatrical distribution in numerous territories, with broadcast and rental pickups likely to be plentiful as well.
There will surely never be a documentary about nuclear disaster with a protagonist more endearing than Fedor Alexandrovich, a shaggy young multimedia artist descended from generations of Ukrainian creatives. With his simultaneous wide-eyed fervor and distracted air, not to mention an ever-mutating mound of wild hair, he seems like Dostoyevsky’s holy-fool “Idiot” come to contemporary life — and as frequently onscreen colleague Artem Ryzhykov (also the film’s cinematographer) points out, his unconventional presence does tend to divide opinions on him into “visionary” and “idiot” camps. Raised in Chernobyl, and for a traumatic post-meltdown time separated from his parents in an orphanage, he is fascinated by the still-mysterious causes and lingering aftereffects of a disaster whose radiation remains lodged in his very bones.
He’s also much absorbed by a lesser-known Soviet monument in the same neighborhood: the Duga, a massive radio-transmitter wall that emitted a curious rapid-fire “pecking” noise apparently designed to interfere with Western government communications. After the nuclear accident, the Duga was abandoned, along with entire communities in the most contaminated immediate zone.
Alexandrovich wonders if the fates of these two enormously expensive, ultimately failed Soviet colossi were even more entwined. Interviewing former high-ranking Soviet officials, scientists, historians and others (some initially less forthcoming ones via hidden camera), he arrives at the outrageous notion that a now-deceased Moscow bigshot just might have ordered the meltdown as a coverup. Two decades after its construction began, at a cost (8 billion rubles) twice that of the entire nuclear plant, Duga was reportedly about to be exposed as a complete failure. Heads would have surely rolled. Is it conceivable that a powerful bureaucrat could have caused the deaths and poisoning of so many to save his own neck?
Alexandrovich, looking back over the various brutalities suffered by Ukrainians in general and his own ancestors in particular under Stalin, finds that notion all too plausible. Some of the now-elderly former Soviet officials he interviews (one insisting it’s “impossible” ex-seminary student Stalin committed any human-rights crimes) still tow a strict party line — if they remain wedded to paranoid zealotry a quarter-century after their regime fell, who can guess what they were capable of under its actual rule?
Meanwhile, in the here and now, Kiev is being rocked by protests in the struggle between pro-democracy/European Union forces and President Yanukovych’s increasing chumminess toward the Russian Federation. Violent crackdowns on protests raised the grim spectre of U.S.S.R.-redux empire building and Stalinist oppression. Already worried for his family over his political activities, Alexandrovich begins to think his Duga/Chernobyl investigation might be even more personally risky.
Deftly cramming a terrific amount of history, breaking news, personal drama, culture and context into a trim runtime, “The Russian Woodpecker” is surprisingly inventive, even buoyant in its presentation of several issues that could scarcely be more sobering. Assembly is first-rate down the line, with particular credit due to Gracia and Devin Tanchum’s superb editing, which docu vet Alan Berliner is credited as supervising.