The mysterious, intense and altogether prophetic “The Russian Woodpecker” is a foray into Ukranian and Russian officials’ culture of secrecy. Chad Gracia’s blistering debut feature film was made with passion and willpower, not to mention guts: at one point, a sniper aiming at the film’s cinematographer just missed, taking out his camera and lens instead. But the team pressed on to tell a very controversial story, and Gracia’s final product emerges as a vital document for our learning about, and contending with, the revolution in Ukraine.
What’s your film about in 140 characters or less?
A victim of the Chernobyl
nuclear disaster discovers a secret amid clouds of war, and must decide whether
to risk his life by revealing it.
Now what’s it REALLY about?
“The Russian Woodpecker” is
a story about one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met, a young
Ukrainian artist whose life has been shaped by the extraordinarily tumultuous
history of his country. Fedor Alexandrovich is a prophetic and protean
character, and I followed him for a year as he pursued his life’s obsession,
uncovering the “criminals” behind the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe (of which
he is a survivor). During the course of his investigation, Ukrainians revolted
against their corrupt, pro-Russian government, and Fedor grew more unstable as
his research and the revolution began to intersect. At the heart of Fedor’s
obsession is the Duga—a massive, Soviet radio antenna near the Chernobyl
nuclear plant that is shrouded in mystery. In the United States, where the
antenna’s rays were directed, many thought it was a device to control weather,
or perhaps, minds. For Fedor, the antenna represented another mystery, and he
was determined to confront it despite the fact that it is an off-limits
military facility in the middle of the radioactive Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. As
Fedor began to put the pieces of his puzzle together, he received terrifying
warnings from the Ukrainian secret police (at that time, under the control of
the pro-Russian President Yanukovitch) to stop his investigation or risk the
safety of his family. By following Fedor’s journey, I hope the film will
provide insights into the difficulties Ukraine faces as it tries to free itself
from its dark Soviet past. This mystifying and magnetic painter – traumatized
and irradiated by Chernobyl, hopeful about his country’s potential European
future, paranoid because so many of his ancestors were murdered, and conflicted
about whether to stand up when he himself is threatened – is a symbol of
Tell us briefly about yourself.
I’ve worked for many years
in theater, primarily producing verse plays and working as a dramaturge. My
interest in Russia and Ukraine dates from an early fascination with Slavic
literature, which inspired me to study the language and culture, and to live
for various stints in Moscow and Kiev. The Russian Woodpecker is my first film.
Biggest challenge in completing this film?
The biggest challenge we
faced was our protagonist’s fear that his research was endangering the safety
of his family. In addition, we confronted challenges inherent in filming during
a revolution. Our cinematographer was shot by snipers; one bullet destroyed his
camera (they were aiming for his head and his camera saved his life) and the
other hit his arm. In this environment, it was difficult to focus on Fedor’s
What do you want Sundance audience to take away from your film?
I would like people to
better understand the revolution in Ukraine, and to give them a glimpse into
the life of an unforgettable and brave artist, who has lived through and
embodies many of Ukraine’s key traumas of the past three decades.
Any films inspire you?
“The Act of Killing,”
“Thin Blue Line,” “Burden of Dreams”
I’m working on a documentary
feature about a controversial scientific project.
What cameras did you shoot on?
Canon 5D; Panasonic GH3;
Sony FS100; GoPro Hero 2
Did you crowdfund?
If so, via what platform.
In the middle of our shoot,
our cinematographer was shot by snipers and his camera and lenses were
destroyed. We used Indiegogo to raise around $10,000 to get him medical care
and rehabilitation, as well as to buy him replacement equipment so that we
could finish the film. His has recovered and is back to work.
Indiewire invited Sundance Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2015 festival. For profiles go HERE.