Chad Gracia thought he would become a Kremlinologist. As the Cold War raged on while he was at the University of Wisconsin, he studied Russian literature and history, fascinated with the mindset of those living in the Soviet Union and planned after graduation, in his words, to investigate “the soul of the Soviet man and woman.” But the Cold War ended before Gracia would have the chance, leaving the Russophile to pursue another career path, ultimately in the theater.
“Ironically, twenty-odd years later, I find myself in the role that I studied for when I was in college,” says Gracia now, who seems just as surprised that he can now call himself a filmmaker after making “The Russian Woodpecker,” this year’s Sundance World Cinema Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary.
Gracia wound up behind the camera after meeting Fedor Alexandrovich, a set designer in Kiev with a background that was intriguing, to say the least. A passionate man whose frizzy, unkempt hair seems to be an extension of his wild creative streak, Alexandrovich is also a child of Chernobyl, just four when the nuclear disaster left radiation in his bones. Yet, as his mother recalls in the film, he declared himself a pacifist at six and was noticeably mature for such a young child, showing great curiosity about Russia’s remaining presence in his native Ukraine, primarily because of a giant radar that hovered over the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone that still carried radio transmissions nicknamed “The Russian Woodpecker.”
Alexandrovich’s theory that the radar is still being used, despite its appearance as a long defunct apparatus collecting rust, serves as the basis for Gracia’s film, but as Russian troops invaded Ukraine at the end of 2014, just as Gracia had planned to wrap up shooting, “The Russian Woodpecker” uses the present to put the pieces of the past together. However, at every turn, Gracia and crew knew there was something worth uncovering and were adamant about doing so, with Alexandrovich’s family threatened by the Ukranian secret police and cinematographer Artem Ryzhykov surviving being shot by snipers while documenting the revolution.
Gracia did not let these personal sacrifices go to waste, making a film that embodies his protagonist’s marriage of artistic instinct and serious investigation and as “The Russian Woodpecker” is made available to the masses, he spoke about his unexpected foray into filmmaking, shooting in the exclusion zone and the challenge of bringing so many story strands together.
If you met Fedor in the theater, how did a film come about?
The play was a retelling of “Anna Karenina.” I used to work in theater in New York and I had the idea that we would try the play out in Kiev, and if it worked, bring it to New York. While we were rehearsing the play, Fedor pulled me aside and told me about this secret antenna that he had discovered, “The Russian Woodpecker”.
We had absolutely no plan. When we started this project, it was a five-minute piece for YouTube just to show this antenna that stands in the shadow of Chernobyl and explain to Americans who thought that it was a mind control device during the ’70s that it was no such thing. This was before the war. Fedor was warning anyone that would listen that the Soviet Union was coming back and the Russians would invade. But everyone thought he was crazy. He was one of the first people to sound this alarm months before anything happened.
We had no idea that we would make anything political or historical. As Fedor says, we just wanted to make an exploration of this object as a metaphor because it looks like the Iron Curtain between the world of freedom and unfreedom. It was something about past. It was an avant-garde, artistic piece that we were going to do. Then life interrupted. The revolution erupted and we got pulled into a much larger story. Eventually, the secret police tried to stop our film, threatened Fedor’s life and our cameraman got shot by a sniper. Things changed quite quickly.
You’ve said that the cinematographer insisted on staying on the front lines because he knew that what he was capturing was important to preserve. Was the gravity of what you were doing apparent pretty quickly?
The first time when we were at the protests, the violence just broke out randomly and we weren’t expecting it. Stun grenades and tear gas were going off all around us and we filmed a few of those scenes, but we decided to pull back because it was too risky to go back there. But our cinematographer refused. He said, “No, this is important for future generations to know what happened,” and that’s when he was shot by a sniper and almost killed. By that point, it was pretty close to the end of our filming and of course we understood that this was serious. This wasn’t just a peaceful protest – it was going to be war.
At the same time, the real war broke out after we stopped filming. One hundred people were killed in Kiev and thousands were killed in the east. Those people are risking their lives, much more than Fedor or I ever did. Our cinematographer is a hero. He also went to the east to film, after our movie came out because he is a true patriot and he is a citizen journalist. He is a little crazy. I’m worried for him. I’m worried for Fedor as well. We’ve been invited to Moscow to present the film and we’re having very serious discussions about whether it’s safe. A Ukrainian director was sentenced to 20 years in prison in Russia just because they found an empty wine bottle in the back of his trunk and said that he was making a Molotov cocktail. So it’s not entirely crazy that something can happen.
As an American, I feel safer, but in a land where someone like [Boris] Nemsov could be gunned down right in front of the Kremlin, who knows what can happen? I love Russia. I lived there after college. The Russians suffered more than anyone from totalitarianism, authoritarianism and the Soviet ideas. In some ways, our film is pro-Russia because we and many Russians are hoping are hoping that they can live in a society where there is a free press and people don’t have to be afraid of these ghosts of the past.
You’re able to really convey both sides of Fedor in terms of his activism and his artistry – I’m thinking of one scene in particular when he outlines his theory about the Russian Woodpecker on a piece of glass with a red grease pencil. Were you consciously looking for those moments when you could show all of that?
I think it’s because we both come from theater background. He’s a [theater production] designer and I was a producer in off-Broadway theater and we didn’t know what you could or couldn’t do in a documentary form, so we just followed our hearts, imaginations and the investigation. We thought, “Okay, we can explain this to the audience in a very boring way,” or… [The scene you’re describing] was Fedor’s idea. Why not draw the idea visually on glass? I trust him and his vision and it turned out to be a much more powerful way to present the information.
The most artistic, of course, is Fedor’s dreams which pop up throughout the film. I was totally against those in the beginning because I thought, “Why are we wasting money and budget recreating your dreams?” [But] he said, “Chad, if you really want to fight the ghosts of the Soviet Union, you can only fight ghosts in dreams.” That sounds crazy and it didn’t see how it would work, but it was the only way I could get him to cooperate. We had a deal that he would do an investigation of dreams and I would do the investigation of logic. They both came together in the final film.
Early in the film, it’s mentioned that Fedor’s been trying to make a film for years. Did you feel like you could finally help make this happen?
I don’t think he was actively trying to make a film. He was busy as a painter, but in the back of his mind he wanted to understand Chernobyl. Then a crazy American shows up and we had some trust from working on the play together. Again, we never had the plan to make a real long fiilm. [We thought] we’ll go for a weekend. We’ll go check out this crazy radar. We’ll have an adventure. Never in a million years I thought we would be at Sundance or in a billion think we would win. It happened just by chance, almost.
Fedor has often said that the truth chose us and chose this time to come out. I am not maybe as superstitious – I’m more of a logical person, which is why our collaboration works, because we’re opposites – but it actually makes sense to me because we started our investigation before the revolution, and all of Fedor’s intuitions about the Soviet Union returning, came true when we saw the response of the Euromaidan. So maybe the time was right, somehow, for this film about the Soviet Union to be made just before they actually did return. I often think Fedor himself is like a radar. Like all great artists, he sees over the horizon. He feels things before the rest of us. While everyone else is going about their business, thinking that these wars and these battles with Russia and the Soviet Union were long ancient history, Fedor sensed that there were drumbeats on the horizon.
Putting aside the potential for radioactivity, isn’t getting anywhere near Chernobyl is extremely difficult with the government regulations?
It’s very difficult. I guess I can only say that there are few doors in Ukraine that cannot be opened with a well-placed gift of a bottle of vodka. [laughs] And I shouldn’t say much more than that. But we were kind of rogue. This wasn’t a BBC production. We probably would have been followed. I doubt that we would have been able to climb to the top of this rusty, swaying, radioactive, 500-meter tall structure [if we were].
There’s an effortlessness to the storytelling that seems like you just followed Fedor, but when his story encompasses so much is it really that easy?
Editing this film was the most difficult intellectual conundrum of my life because we had five totally separate stories. We had the story of Ukraine’s history, the technology behind this radar, the Euromaidan revolution, Fedor’s dreams and the story of the Chernobyl catastrophe. I thought, “How can I ever bring them together? Should I make five short films?” Then one morning I had a Eureka moment, that really I just have one story – of a four-year-old boy who was irradiated by Chernobyl, and has struggled his whole life to get the courage to stand up to the ghosts of the Soviet Union and the people responsible for this nightmare. That is what the film is about. Anything that didn’t support that narrative thread, I cut, which is why the film is a brisk 80 minutes.
The miracle is that all five of these story lines support Fedor’s journey. You can’t understand Fedor without understanding the fact that his grandmother’s brother was executed by the Soviets with a bullet to the back of the head. You can’t understand Fedor if you don’t understand and see what happened during the Euromaidan uprising, and Fedor’s part in that. You can’t understand Fedor without understanding Chernobyl. And you can’t understand Fedor, without seeing his dreams brought to the screen. This is his unconscious.
All of these stories I was able to include and they’re all intertwined, like the struts that hold up this bridge. But the bridge is taking us from a four-year-old boy to the moment at the end of the film when he confronts these demons. But it was a nightmare [to connect]. Luckily, I had an excellent editor at my side, Devin Tanchum and Alan Berliner, an extraordinary documentary filmmaker who was our Yoda who gave us advice and strength so we were able to do it.