Director Chad Gracia (pictured below) had always thought the 1986 explosion at Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant was an accident. He was in high school when the event occurred and – like many around him – did not attach any conspiracy theories to the disaster.
But when the American theatre director found himself in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, in 2013 in search of a theatre project – “We found a script called Karenin – the story of Anna Karenina told through the perspective of the husband,” he enthuses - his interactions with local performance artist Fedor Alexandrovich began to shift his perspective. The local man had been irradiated as a child as his family lived near the plant, and he had an intriguing theory as to what really caused the reactor to blow.
Alexandrovich reasoned that the Chernobyl disaster was inextricably linked to a larger-than-life radio transmitter called the Duga that had been built by the Soviets to transmit signals – complete with a clicking sound that gave it the label “The Russian Woodpecker” – to North America and pick up intelligence from America during the Cold War. It was Alexandrovich’s belief that when the billion-dollar project, which was situated near the power plant, was deemed a failure, a Soviet official gave orders to blow up the reactor in order to cover up the faulty Duga.
The Russian-speaking Gracia, upon hearing Alexandrovich’s theory, agreed to make “a very short piece” about the antenna that was meant to be more theatre than documentary. But when the conflict between Russia and the Ukraine broke out in the fall of 2013, the theatre project was shelved and Gracia and Alexandrovich instead embarked on a feature documentary about the Duga.
In January, The Russian Woodpecker- produced by Roast Beef Productions, Rattapalax and Gracia Films – picked up the Grand Jury prize for documentary in the World Cinema competition at the Sundance Film Festival and today (June 19) enjoys a premiere at Washington DC’s AFI Docs. All rights are currently available for the critically acclaimed documentary.
In Gracia’s first-ever film, Alexandrovich makes for a quirky protagonist – particularly while he shoots his own off-kilter film about the investigation alongside the director – but the team’s discoveries also provide a disturbing glimpse into the ongoing hostilities and danger faced by those who question Russia’s history and ongoing involvement in Ukraine.
Some of The Russian Woodpecker’s most compelling revelations come through the use of hidden cameras in interviews with former high-ranking officials, historians and researchers who only agree to speak as long as the American Gracia is not present. Meanwhile, other challenges included conveying the sheer size of the Duga on film, as well as the intricacies of shooting in an area with radiation levels 10 times higher than normal.
Realscreen caught up with Gracia at Sheffield Doc/Fest last week to discuss the complexities of filming with hidden cameras, how he navigated his collaboration with Alexandrovich and how he dispelled any fears about radiation exposure.
Why were you originally in Kiev?
The kinds of plays I like are very hard to do, so I thought Kiev would be very cheap. I thought, “If it works, then we can bring it to New York, and I can practice my Russian and see my friends.” And then I met Fedor and I just thought this is a once in a lifetime [opportunity]. You don’t meet people that have so much energy and are so eccentric. Fedor is the kind of person where everyone who meets him thinks he’s either a genius or a mad man.
Had you dabbled in film before making The Russian Woodpecker?
Our director of photography [Artem Ryzhykov] has done a lot of work, so in terms of the composition I can’t claim it. I did a short film when I was 12 on a Super 8, but other than that, no, this was my first film. I really do think we live in a world where anyone with a good story, some inexpensive equipment, a strong protagonist and a great friend and cameraman – who will work for almost nothing – can make a beautiful film. I’m glad to take the compliments but I also realize that it’s easier now than ever before to make a film like this.
How did you secure access with the various Russian and Ukrainian authorities and experts you interview in the film?
Many of the people agreed to meet with us without any question because they want people to know the truth. They were very open to having the interviews. I think when I, Chad Gracia the American, asked for interviews, we got nowhere. So eventually we translated all our documents into Ukrainian, we disguised American involvement and we rented an apartment with a secret closet where I could hide and Skype the questions from, so I could conduct the interviews without being seen. And then they started to open up, when they didn’t feel there was an enemy in the room.
Why did they agree to meet with our Ukrainian partners? I think it’s because these are people that, 25 years ago, were the crème de la crème of Soviet society and now they’re living in run-down apartments and are all but forgotten. And for someone to come and say, “Tell us about your youth and how you were defending the great motherland,” I think they jumped at the chance to reminisce and talk. But only when I was hidden did we get anywhere.
Because Fedor is so involved in the investigation, was it difficult to collaborate and navigate the director-subject relationship with him?
It was hugely difficult to collaborate with Fedor, but the dynamic drama that we went through every day made the film much better. And my solution was that I said, “You film your version” – which was the dream sequence – “and you can cut your own version of the film, and I’m going to film my version and I will cut my own version of the film.” That was my agreement. But ultimately, anyone who sees this will see there are two films interwoven. There’s Fedor’s film and there’s mine and we have very different approaches.
At what point did you use drones to film the Duga?
Only at the end. After we got into Sundance, we thought, “Let’s invest a little bit more money to make sure this can be as good as possible.” The antenna is one of the stars of the film, so we wanted to put it in the very best light. It’s enormous – it’s one of the largest antennas ever built – but to show that on the ground is very difficult, and to show it from far away is very difficult, so I thought let’s splurge and go back and get a drone.
The problem was not the money; the problem was that the war was on by that point and we were warned that a week earlier, a drone had been shot out of the air by Russian troops so we could not take the drone higher than the antenna. We stayed on the Ukrainian side of the antenna and it acted as a barrier between our equipment and our presence, and the Russian border guards who were a few kilometers away. That was our biggest problem – to make sure our drone didn’t get blown out of the sky and start a second phase in the war with Russia. And that was done surreptitiously, but I think it was worth it.
Did you have any reservations about venturing into radioactive areas? How did you protect yourself?
If you follow certain instructions, it’s safe – if you’re in quickly and you stay on the roads. Because most of the radiation was in dust and the dust settled long ago and then they put two meters of concrete over the ground, if you walk over that concrete, you’re safe. And the radiation changes drastically depending on where you are. If you go off the concrete and into the forest and start to muck up the dirt, it brings up all the dust particles and it’s extremely dangerous. So we followed certain rules like that. Obviously some of the scenes required us to take a little bit of risk, but I think we were safe because we were relatively careful and quick.
- The Russian Woodpecker screens at AFI Docs today at 2 p.m. EST/PST in Silver 2, and tomorrow (June 20) at 9:15 p.m. EST/PST in Landmark 6. Click here for more details.
- Check out a trailer for the film below.