Fedor Alexandrovich looks and acts the part of a modern-day mystic. He has a wild beard and hairdo and speaks energetically about the ghosts of the past and artistic synergy, in English with a bearcoat-thick accent. When we meet at a Los Angeles hotel to talk, the multidisciplinary Ukrainian artist refers to having watched the entire run of Game of Thrones during his visit to America. He finds many parallels to the political situation between Ukraine and Russia in its story.
Fedor has recently visited the Watts Towers, and wears a souvenir T-shirt bearing the image of the folk-art structures. He finds that they somewhat look like the Duga-3 array, a Soviet-built radio antenna in Ukraine which stands right in the shadow of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (I agree with him; the resemblance is fascinating). Fedor’s investigation into the true purpose of the Duga is the focus of The Russian Woodpecker, a new documentary from first-time director Chad Gracia, which is now in limited release and available on VOD. Gracia is with Fedor for the film’s press tour, and is fortunately better able to articulate their journey in English. Check out conversation below.
The Film Stage: What first set you on your investigation?
Alexandrovich: I found Duga to be a metaphor for the Iron Curtain. Chad started this film to destroy the different conspiracy theories about Duga-3, and as we made it, we found there was more than one metaphor of the Cold War and Iron Curtain. When we first learned the theories, I not believe in any of them. Where’s the proof? It’s impossible. But I was absolutely shocked at what we found. That emotion emerges over the film. Absolute shock at this crime, the Chernobyl catastrophe. In investigating the metaphor, we found the real reason.
Gracia: I was putting on a play in Kiev, and Fedor was the production designer. Whenever there was a break in our rehearsals, he would pull me aside and say, ‘You have to follow me to check out this Russian woodpecker. This Russian woodpecker. Every time I would see him coming, I would be like, Oh god. Here comes the Russian woodpecker again. I thought it was a bird. I thought he wanted me to go to a zoo or an aviary and check out a Russian woodpecker. Eventually it was cleared up for me: The woodpecker was this secret Soviet radio signal broadcast during the Cold War. Americans thought it was meant to turn us into zombies. After all, there were lot of psychotronic weapons that were being researched in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
I thought it would make for a nice five-minute film, that we could very easily debunk this American conspiracy theory. I thought we’d go interview the engineers and scientists who built the Duga-3 antenna, and that we’d find out quickly what it did. Obviously, they’d tell us that no, that it wasn’t supposed to turn Americans into zombies. But Fedor said that this idea would never work.
Alexandrovich: This is an American idea. Logic. Instead, I thought I will reenact my dreams about this antenna, about this metaphor. We have to understand ghosts, and ghosts can only be understood and battled through dreams.
Gracia: As you could imagine, with my very small budget and this short time period, I thought this was insane. But something about Fedor convinced me to do it. We agreed to do a parallel investigation. We would do a dream investigation and a traditional investigation. I quickly fell in love with his dream investigation, and he became fascinated with the actual investigation.
We noticed that people started lying. They were obviously lying to us, everyone we met. It was clear that there was some secret. By the end, we had talked to so many senior officials who looked us in the eye and said there is a massive cover-up here. When the secret police tried to shut down our investigation and threatened Fedor’s family, that’s when we really knew that this wasn’t just a conspiracy — that there is something very dangerous, and which a lot of people want to remain hidden.
What filmmaking experience did either of you have beforehand?
Alexandrovich: With my friend Artem [Ryzhykov], who is cinematographer of this film, I make maybe seven or eight short films in different festivals. That work is a very different product from this documentary, and I am very glad I found Chad, who brings logic to the drama. That logic is synergistic with my emotion, my much poetic mentality. Artem is from Russia, I am Ukrainian, Chad is Portuguese from America. We’re connected from different parts of the world and different understandings of life. This synergy bonds us well.
Gracia: When we were making this, Artem was 22 or 23, just in college. I’m not young, but we are all very young to the art of film. In some way, not knowing anything about making documentaries helped a lot. I approached this with my theater background, and Fedor comes from the theater world as well. In some strange way, it was really helpful for the film not to have a lot of experts involved. We were just sort of passionate, crazy people on a mission.
As novice investigators, how did you go about this mission?
Gracia: First of all, it’s impossible to do real research in the post-Soviet space. We would ask for documents, and they would say, ‘First question: Who are you? Why do you want the documents? What are you going to do with them?’ Then we’d get an answer: ‘Oh, we would love to give them to you, but they are radioactive because they were stored in the Chernobyl library.’ We got craziest answers when we asked for information. Very quickly, we realized that archival research was almost impossible to do. The documents around Duga-3 itself are sealed in Moscow in a military archive. There’s no Freedom of Information Act request that you can make. We knew we had to talk to the actual people who built it, the people who ran it.
We found that they were all very willing to speak when our Ukrainian fixer called them up and asked them for an interview. These men used to be on top of the world. They were in the leadership of the Soviet Union. Now they are living in crumbling apartments on $40-a-month pensions, forgotten by everyone. Some young woman calls and says, ‘We would like to talk with you for a few hours about your youth and about the great engineering feats and inventions that you worked on.’ They all agreed.
They didn’t know that there was an American involved. When I showed up, the room temperature dropped about 20 degrees. Celsius. It was clear that it wasn’t going to work. They clammed up. They started obviously lying. They told us outlandish theories about what the antenna did. Eventually, we set up a special apartment with a hidden space that I could squeeze myself into. There was a little window I could see a little bit through, and I could Skype with the crew.
After I hid myself, that’s when they started to open up. Of course, even that took a lot of work, because even though it’s the modern day, it doesn’t matter to these people. They are still Soviets. They are looking over their shoulders, afraid that there’s going to be a knock on the door after the interview, and they are going to be called away for giving away a secret. It took everything we could. A little bit of vodka. A very, um, attractive fixer who would warm them up a little bit — ‘Oh please. I’m just a silly girl. I don’t know anything. You must have been so smart. Tell us.’ We tried everything possible to get them to tell us their stories.
Tell me more about this fixer.
Gracia: Her name is Marina Orekhova. We ended up promoting her to associate producer because she was so crucial to the film. She basically organized everything in Ukraine. She did everything within the law to get us what we needed — she was very creative and tireless. She even got us the access to the Duga-3 back when it was still closed. Now, the array is opened up for tourism. Crazy. Marina was able to get us into the radioactive zone. We were one of the first camera teams that went to the antenna. And she was able to find the people who built it. She’s amazing. Her specialty is helping international crews to film in Ukraine. She did the same kind of work on The Babushkas of Chernobyl, another documentary that’s making the circuits. I don’t know where we’d be without her …
This film was a series of small synergistic miracles. We were so lucky. Artem came onboard almost randomly. We got the 90-year-old former head of the antenna to speak with us. He’s now in the hospital, and probably won’t be with us much longer. I mean, there’s the fact that I met Fedor in the first place. The fact that [producer] Mike Lerner came in. I didn’t know anything about post-production. I thought, Great. I have maxed out my credit cards. I did my last shot. Movie is done. How do I put it in the theaters. But Mike came on board and found the funds for post.
What time frame were you shooting in? A what point in the production did the uprising in Ukraine start?
Gracia: Fedor approached me in July 2013. He was obsessed with the idea that the Soviet Union was going to return, and that the Russians were going to invade. Everyone thought he was crazy. We started shooting in October. In November, the protests started. Principal photography ended in February. After that, there were about six months of editing, and then we submitted to Sundance. It was about a year and half from conception to premiere, which I understand is unusually short. Besides a finishing grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, we had no outside funding. We didn’t have to go through the cycles of grant-seeking that many documentarians have to. Events just overtook us, and it happened so quickly.
You were filming in a dangerous time and place, and dealing with potentially volatile information. At one point, Artem secretly films a list of officials you weren’t allowed to copy. Fedor’s family is threatened. What else happened, both in front of and behind the camera?
Gracia: Artem was shot by a sniper. Police were aiming for journalists, or anyone who looked like one. He was filming with his camera, and two of his friends were doing the same on his left and right, and they were killed that day. One bullet hit his lens and exploded his camera. A second bullet went into his bicep and knocked him on the ground, which saved his life. Someone dragged him away. He lost his friends. He was afraid to go to the hospital, because there police would say, ‘Ah, you are a protester,’ and beat people, and throw them into the forest to freeze. So he walked and walked and found a veterinarian to take the bullet out. We were terrified, because he disappeared for three, four days.
Alexandrovich: It was very dangerous for the life of my family when the secret police believed I had a copy of a secret tape. In this telephone call, they say, ‘You give us the tape.’ I understand now that the situation is very very dangerous. I said that I could give them the tape if we met the next day. Instead, that evening my family and I left the country. That was an absolutely crazy year, crazier than all the others before put together. All these things happening at the same time.
Gracia: Luckily for everyone, a few weeks after that, the government fled and all these pro-Russian secret police in Ukraine disappeared. They had also demanded final cut on our film, and that there be a disclaimer. We did end up putting in a disclaimer, but we never gave them final cut.
Fedor, was your family supportive of your efforts?
Alexandrovich: When we begin this investigation and film, yes, certainly they were. But then we came close to the very dangerous information. Living and working in Ukraine, you understand there is taboo. There is a certain rule about speaking about the old time.
Gracia: To make it clear, Fedor doesn’t self-censor. He went right into interviews saying, ‘Did you blow up Chernobyl?’
Alexandrovich: After a while, I stop the investigation. I don’t understand everything. Who is Chad Gracia? Maybe he is an American spy, and the film is only mask. Maybe the film does not exist — it’s only a trap. It was dangerous time for my family and me, and I didn’t understand the situation.
Gracia: We stopped trusting each other for about a month because he was told that I was working for the CIA. He recanted everything that he had been investigating. Our film involved so many hidden cameras. I thought Artem was filming us both with secret cameras. Artem and I were filming Fedor. I thought Fedor was filming me. We lived in a state of absolute paranoia. Meanwhile, people who looked like stormtroopers were marching around and beating people. It was a very surreal, terrifying world.
It became clear that this was how it was to live in the Soviet Union, where neighbors and friends and family members didn’t trust each other. They spied on each other, reported on each other. I thought this was ancient history, but here we were in 2014, filming each other with secret cameras and wondering if we were poisoning each other. I wanted to get out of there for a while, but I was also tempted to keep filming, because I realized that we were able to capture something real about Ukrainian society. It’s not enough to take down the Soviet flag and put up a Ukrainian flag. A country that’s been traumatized by authoritarianism and lies and paranoia for generations, while millions of people have been murdered … that’s a trauma that is not easily overcome, and it’s still very strong in Ukraine. These ghosts of the Soviet Union infected us.
Have there been any new developments since production finished? Will you continue doing any work on this investigation?
Alexandrovich: I think this information must go into the world. This information about Ukraine, about revolution, about Chernobyl. We must fight the ghosts of Soviet Union with an angel of truth. We must tell people about reality, about what is happening. We cannot stop.
Gracia: The angel of truth is still battling, but we have no budget line for additional research. The angel of truth is not getting paid right now. But seriously, we went as far as a nonprofessional and an artist could. We asked questions, and we found mysteries and inconsistencies and a cover-up. It would take 20 years and an army of people to go further. And Ukraine has much bigger problems right now than looking back what happened 30 years ago. They need to keep the country from collapsing economically and being torn apart further. And the key is in Putin’s hands. Russia has already refused three high-level Ukrainian government requests to open up its archive, and those were during good times. I think that this will unfortunately remain a mystery. But for me, that’s not too important.
The film is not about the specific details of the crime in this catastrophe, in this cover-up. Fedor, and I have all of these … I think of them as irradiated puzzle pieces. Fedor put them together in a way that makes sense. Whether it was the right way or the only way, I think is unknowable. There’s another theme in the film: the impossibility of uncovering truth in a land where everything is surreal and where truth never grew in the ground. The ground is fertile for paranoia and conspiracy, not for truth. To me, the film is about Fedor’s journey, how he is facing the criminals responsible for Chernobyl and many other tragedies in his life and in his family’s lives. To me, that’s the story.
The Russian Woodpecker is now in limited release and available on VOD.
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