In the AFI DOCS film THE RUSSIAN WOODPECKER, a young, eccentric Ukrainian artist named Fedor Alexandrovich — just four years old when the Chernobyl disaster struck — seeks to learn more about what happened at the nuclear plant. Fedor becomes fascinated with the Duga — a massive, Soviet-constructed radio antenna near the Chernobyl site that remains shrouded in mystery. Fedor discovers that the Duga was one of the USSR’s secret Cold War weapons built to penetrate Western communications systems and, possibly, minds.
AFI spoke to director Chad Gracia about his film. There are potential spoilers ahead, so proceed with caution.
My protagonist, an artist in Kiev named Fedor, led me to THE RUSSIAN WOODPECKER — a radio signal from the Cold War. I was inspired both by the mystery surrounding this Cold War weapon, which stands just a few kilometers from the Chernobyl nuclear power station, as well as by Fedor’s intense fascination and dread regarding this object.
How did you find Fedor?
Through a theater play I was working on in Kiev.
What particular obstacles did you face when making the film?
We faced many obstacles relating to the Soviet past’s lingering presence in Ukraine. For instance, several interviews with former military men had to be conducted with me (the only American on the team) hiding and Skyping messages to be asked of the interview subject. We found that when I was in the room, we were lied to or misled. More dangerously, our cinematographer was shot by a sniper while filming and while his camera saved his life (the bullet entered the lens), two of his friends were killed that day.
Given the extreme circumstances that begin to unfold in your film’s narrative, did you at any point consider abandoning the project due to external pressures? What made you (and your team) decide to keep going?
When the Ukrainian secret police threatened our protagonist and his family, we did consider stopping production. However, very soon after this, and after our cinematographer was shot by snipers, the pro-Russian government in Kiev fell, and these threats evaporated. Our Ukrainian team showed great courage and a strong desire to tell this story, so even though they faced greater danger than I did (they knew I would be returning to America after production), they wanted to keep the production and investigation going.
What initially led you to documentary filmmaking?
I came upon this almost entirely by accident. I was working on a theater production in Kiev about two years ago, and had never made a documentary before. The designer for the theater production I was working with — Fedor Alexandrovich — was insistent that I look into a secret antenna he had discovered. Eventually, I agreed to make a 7-minute piece about this antenna, as a way of putting my toe in the waters of filmmaking. The project eventually morphed out of our control intoTHE RUSSIAN WOODPECKER.
Which documentary filmmaker has been the most influential to you?
Werner Herzog. I was particularly inspired by his focus on eccentric and memorable characters, as well as his storytelling style, which transcends traditional genre boundaries.
What did you learn from making your film that you’d pass on to aspiring documentary filmmakers?
Find a subject that you are deeply fascinated by and then trust your gut in following this individual on their journey. But make sure that they are actually on a journey, or your film may lack a narrative structure.
Why do you think Washington, DC is a valuable location to screen your film? Does your film have any particular issues that would benefit from DC exposure?
The fate of Ukraine is vital to the future of NATO and the post-Cold War world. The decisions that are made in Washington about how to respond to Russian aggression may define the next generation of geopolitics. Our film, which is about the past and current relationship between Ukraine and Russia, could be of value for policy-makers and pundits interested in understanding this dangerous conflict.
THE RUSSIAN WOODPECKER will screen at AFI DOCS on June 19 and 20, 2015. Watch the trailer below.