Documentary Review: ‘The Russian Woodpecker’

Review by Tom Swift

Irradiated as a kid in Chernobyl, an outspoken yet forlorn young man seeks the “secret” reason “why.”

Fedor Alexandrovich tells us his story as a fuzzy looking young man whose unkempt hair seems to sizzle with radioactivity. His mother tells us that he has been found to have radioactive isotopes in his bone marrow. And Fedor — for all his personal eccentricity – can’t hide the “lost” look of a young man with a ticking time bomb inside — that’s both physical and political. The political cancer that infects Ukrainian life might, however, bring him down first.

Like a dogged investigative reporter being tailed by the KGB, he eventually comes to the conclusion during the film that the apparatus of the former Soviet Union stills holds sway and is stalking him — as Fedor tries to expose their crimes. The name of former KGB agent Putin never comes up, but it’s as if he’s hiding behind every dark corner. Some of this fear is so explosive in fact — that, this documentary bears the disclaimer that the film is not meant to cause conflict between Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

For all this film’s seriousness, however, The Russian Woodpecker often plays like a Kubrick take on some awful situation – like Clockwork Orange or Dr. Strangelove. The title refers to the nickname for a monstrous Soviet era antenna that’s shaped like a massive metal curtain – and just begs the question of who the evil behind the curtain just might be. This antenna sits just north of Chernobyl, and the film’s search for answers contends that Chernobyl was blown up by a Communist Central Committee member in order to mask the antennae’s failure. You have to see this to believe it, and you very might well not.
There’s also a lot of eerie footage here of a still evacuated Chernobyl that you also might not want to believe.

The woodpecker reference comes from the electronic “tick-tick-tick” the antenna released as it tried to monitor potential missile traffic across the globe. There are 1980’s Americans here freaking out about this. A trail of non-denial denials regarding this project is provided by a series of aged Soviet bureaucrats and military men who know “nothing.” Some dare to tell the truth, however, and this cat and mouse game plays out like a satirically skewed version of All The President’s Men.

The assemblage of the real time search and archival footage is a wonder to behold. There’s passion behind the camera here – as one might hope from Ukrainians whose homeland still glows in the dark. The film also takes us back to the street protests that began thin Kiev and the Russian attempts to conquer the Eastern Ukraine based on the “evil” Western influences behind those protests.

You often feel like that history is playing out in real time – though it still is somehow hard to believe that the “secret” reason “why” for Chernobyl: a silver haired bureaucrat who wanted to cover his butt.

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