Chad Gracia’s The Russian Woodpecker is all at once an urgent look at the modern trajectory of Ukraine under the increasing influence of Russia, an amateurish conspiracy documentary on the verge of an interesting theory, and a half-hearted character study of an eccentric Ukrainian artist, Fedor Alexandrovich, dealing with trauma through delusion. On paper, or perhaps in Salt Lake City, the film sounds like an engaging and unique story, but in practice it’s a shambolic mess.
When a documentary touches on conspiracy, it tends to fall into one of two camps – films that actively participate or promote the idea of a conspiracy to be uncovered (Cropsey, The Art of the Steal, a brilliant segment in Bart Layton’s The Imposter) or they are films about conspiracies and those who believe them (Room 237, New World Order). The Russian Woodpecker is fundamentally confused as to which approach it wants to take, only feigning any distance from Fedor in an effort to realign the film as a profound statement on living in fear in Ukraine. One of the primary reasons for this hesitancy is, naturally, that Fedor’s theory goes from bizarre to plausible and then to starkly unsubstantiated; he becomes fixated on what he sees as the clear answer, tied up in his firm belief that there must have been a singular mastermind behind the Chernobyl disaster. Any claims at some observational distance, though, the kind that would afford the filmmakers a level of indulge in crafting a bizarre but compelling character study, are undercut by the fact that they find themselves active participants in the uncovering of the ‘mystery’; they set up hidden cameras which are used to extract the truth from former workers at the Duga antenna, they serve as witnesses of place, moreso than people, sifting through the rubble of Chernobyl alongside Fedor.
The scenes at the abandoned Chernobyl site actually form some of the best of the film, with one fairly breathtaking drone-operated shot our first look at the massive Duga antenna and some haunting shots of a school littered with gas masks. Fedor goes to Chernobyl in 2011, and whilst the cinematography from Artem Ryzhykov is starkly beautiful, there’s a sense that the artists are overstating their isolation. In the timeline of the film, they visit Chernobyl on their own in 2011, yet the Ukranian government approved tourism in the area in January of that year. The constant on-screen text reminders of radiation levels they are facing also tends to sully the idea of any actual investigative documentary, the filmmakers clearly forcing narrative stakes onto their footage.
As the film moves into its final section we watch as the filmmakers and Fedor discuss the content of the film we are watching, the introductory titlecard about not wanting to injure relations between Ukraine and Russia is mentioned as being at the suggestion of the secret police and the very act of completing the film is painted as the true dramatic thrust. Despite the fact that there have been clear abuses of power by the Russian government both at home and in Ukraine, this shift of focus to the filmmakers themselves can’t help but feel a touch disingenuous. They spend a scene arguing with Fedor about the importance of going to Moscow to continue the film, then the cinematographer, Artem Ryzhykov, decides he will go, cutting in a clip of him talking to camera about going to Moscow. Instead of any expected footage, though, the film quickly shifts to the Kiev uprising of 2013, rendering the last fifteen minutes or so essentially navel-gazing masquerading as journalism because of personal threats Fedor received.
It’s a frustrating conflation of actually important events – their footage of the Kiev protests is gripping for the most part – with the faux-importance of Fedor’s conspiracy theory and their film, culminating in a groan-inducing ending that seems to link Fedor’s speech to the crowd at Kiev’s Independence Square to the police violence that followed soon after. It’s also very hard to ignore the fact that the director and producers on this film are American, and the central thesis, outside of Fedor’s specific Chernobyl conspiracy, seems to be that unless Putin is stopped the USSR will rise again.
This isn’t to say the subject matter of Gracia’s film is uninteresting, for the most part Fedor’s theory remains oddly compelling, despite the heavy-handed editing of the documentary. The problem exists in form, amateurishly shot and edited interviews, sudden insertions of primers on Ukrainian history and a vague sense of purpose. The film doesn’t end up an insightful look at the Kiev uprising in 2014, instead seemingly using it to bolster the weight of their paranoiac conspiracy.