Evacuated to a Kiev orphanage at age four following the Chernobyl meltdown, Ukrainian artist Fedor Alexandrovich has always felt a deep connection to the 1986 disaster that he claims led him to art and that seems to have defined his whole life and character. "Idiot," some call him; others, including his friend, cinematographer Artem Ryzhykov, "genius." "He is from another world," Ryzhykov says of the wild-haired, good-humored, and passionate Alexandrovich. "Everything he does is theater." Director Chad Gracia's The Russian Woodpecker is a document of, and accomplice to the artist's most recent work, a performance and a journey, the search for those responsible for the Chernobyl disaster, for names and for justice.
Early in his investigation, Alexandrovich learns of another Soviet state project located near the nuclear plant at a secret military base: a massive radio antenna, known as Duga, that in 1976 began transmitting a 10 Hz signal nicknamed "The Russian Woodpecker" by the West because of its repetitive tocking. As archival news footage from NBC, CNN, and BBC shows, the world was well aware of this phenomenon from the moment it started, but the question of what it meant remained a mystery to many even after the transmission ceased in the late 1980s. Alexandrovich quickly becomes convinced that the power plant and the antenna's fates are connected.
Duga, still standing, provides many of the film's grandest images of post-Soviet decay as we follow Alexandrovich into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (still hot, registering 10 times normal radiation levels), where he also visits the reactor's abandoned workers' town, its derelict amusement park and the former school where one room's floor is completely covered with children's gas masks, useless against radiation. It's a scene reminiscent of the U.S. Holocaust Museum's displays of shoes, glasses, and suitcases.
Indeed, the film positions the Chernobyl disaster, particularly government denials and heel-dragging that caused even more exposure, more deaths, as another phase of the Soviet Union's Holocaust-like intervention in Ukraine, which includes Josef Stalin's imposed famine of the 1930s and deportations to the Gulag that included Alexandrovich's own grandfather. This history naturally concerns the artist's parents who worry his questions and claims, his hours of interviews and secret recordings of former Chernobyl officials and radar experts who worked on Duga may lead to trouble with the authorities, despite Ukraine's independence from Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Alexandrovich's inquiries and the film's making began 18 months before then-president Viktor Yanukovych fled the country, a period when Ukraine's pro-Russian government may have had more of an interest in protecting its neighbor and former master. But the artist eventually ends up at the 2013-14 protests on Kiev's Maidan Square, concerned about the potential for violence, about his country's future, but, a kind of antenna himself, with a chance to finally broadcast his warnings about the rise of a new Russian Empire to ears willing to hear.
The Russian Woodpecker's timeliness may be encouragement enough to make this a must-see, but Alexandrovich and Ryzhykov are great characters as well, and they make an intriguing Holmes and Watson in this beautifully photographed and inventive documentary.