Ukrainian multimedia artist Fedor Alexandrovich is haunted by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which occurred when he was four years old. There’s radiation in Fedor’s bones, and this may be what drives his conviction that the accident was a willful act of sabotage designed to protect the secrets behind a nearby Soviet-controlled radio installation dubbed the “woodpecker.”
In a commanding debut, American filmmaker Chad Gracia, aided by cinematographer Artem Ryzhykov, follows Fedor as he visits the forbidden Exclusion Zone around Chernobyl. It’s desolate, of course, but Fedor, who is one part performance artist, wraps his naked body in plastic and dances across an ashy floor littered with gas masks. Later, he climbs to the top of the massive, still-standing radio installation, an act of rebellion breathtaking in its daring.
As Fedor begins asking questions of elderly ex-Soviet officials — loyalists, still — his wild-eyed theory that the Chernobyl accident was initiated by a Moscow bureaucrat desperate to hide the failings of the ultra-expensive radio tower takes on a feverish plausibility, even as Gracia’s healthy skepticism keeps the film from going off the rails.
Fedor’s quest eventually takes an emotionally wrenching turn, which Gracia and Ryzhykov handle with an impressive combination of empathy and journalistic ruthlessness. The Russian Woodpecker is very much like Fedor himself — eccentric as hell, smart as a whip, and, at the end of the day, a heartbreaker.
The Russian Woodpecker
Directed by Chad Gracia
Opens October 16, AMC Empire 25