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How Chernobyl Doc ‘The Russian Woodpecker’ Grew Larger, More Dangerous, and Much More Surreal

How Chernobyl Doc 'The Russian Woodpecker' Grew Larger, More Dangerous, and Much More Surreal

The Russian Woodpecker,” which comes to rest in theaters Friday after an extensive festival run, is a thriller, a caper film, a social-political document and a genuine investigative documentary. So you can’t give too much away. Still, considering how many Russians are in the movie who obviously don’t want to be, you have to ask director Chad Gracia: What was the vodka budget?

“More than what we had initially budgeted for, let’s put it that way.”

The centerpiece of the film is Ukrainian artist Fedor Alexandrovich, who grew up radioactive in the shadow of Chernobyl (he was four when the reactor exploded in 1986) and has, quite understandably, harbored a lifelong fascination with what’s generally acknowledged to have been world’s worst nuclear-plant disaster (though Fukushima comes close…). How did it happen? Why did it happen? And almost as important: What was the significance of the nearby Duga antennae, a massive, hulking, now-derelict contraption which once emitted a constant 10-clicks-a-second radio frequency that Americans of the ‘70s thought was intended to turn them into zombies? As Alexandrovich says in the film, there are no coincidences.

“We were in Kiev working on a play,” said Gracia, for whom “Woodpecker” is a first film. “I was the producer; Fedor was the set designer. When we started rehearsal Fedor pulled me aside and said, ‘The play is interesting but I have something more interesting: ‘The Russian Woodpecker.’ He wanted to make a film. I’d never made a film.”

Why choose Gracia? “I was the only American and the only one in the area with any money, I guess,” Gracia said. He thought the story would make a “nice five-minute piece” but ultimately “it became much larger. And more dangerous. And much more surreal.”

Their search for what lay behind the Chernobyl blast led to the highest echelons of Soviet power, and in some cases to the grave. The film was made during the height of recent tensions between Russia and Ukraine and feature Alexandrovich both running away from the movie, and running back to it, and his homeland.

“Everything was happening so quickly,” he said. “A chaotic whirlwind. It’s hard for me now in retrospect to understand where I got that courage, but when I first heard they were shooting people, somehow I instinctively jumped up and had to rush back home.”

The film is also a contrast in style and personalities. “I wanted to do a traditional investigation and interview scientists and military men,” said Gracia. “Fedor wanted to recreate this dream that he said would be the only way to find truth: Build a raft out of glass and sail across the radioactive sea with a torch, naked—and that was just the beginning.”

Both men get their way, to a degree.

The film will premiere in Ukraine next month, Gracia said. “Right after we turned off the cameras the pro-Russian government fled and now the country, especially in Kiev, is much more pro-West and they’ve embraced the film and we’ll have a premiere next month. The bigger question is Moscow.”

Gracia said he’d be going; Alexandrovich has no such intention. “My character, my charisma, will do well in Moscow,” he said. “I’ll be happy to have my soul on screen there. But my body will stay home.”

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