“My film Is Against Governments That Lie To Their People And Create Conspiracy Theories”

Abhishek Srivastava - 71 weeks ago

Chernobyl has spawned numerous forms of content across the world. Be it films, documentaries or series - the subject matter of what transpired at the Ukrainian city of Pripyat on the night of 25th/26th April 1986 still fascinates and haunts artists and filmmakers the world over.

(Director Chad Gracia and Fedor Alexandrovich after the screening of The Russian Woodpecker at the Sheffield Doc Fest (Image courtesy - Chad Gracia's Facebook page)

The positive reception to HBO’s ongoing mini-series Chernobyl and publication of as many as three books last year - Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham, Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe by Serhii Plokhy and Chernobyl 01 23 40 by Andrew Leatherbarrow only reinforces the belief that even after 33 years, Chernobyl still has the power to evoke and conjure interest among people. The airing of Chernobyl on HBO also gives an opportunity to recall an equally fascinating documentary The Russian Woodpecker by filmmaker Chad Gracia. The Russian Woodpecker deals with a dark secret from the Soviet history which was discovered by a victim of the nuclear disaster. This brave and incisive film got its due when it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival. 

So enamored was Chad Gracia with Soviet culture and its people that he opted for Russian history and literature when he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin. He had all the intentions of becoming a Kremlinologist but when the Cold War ended it played spoilsport with his ambitions and he decided to quit being a Russophile and seek an alternate form of living. Gracia’s meeting with Fedor Alexandrovich, the protagonist of his documentary and the victim of the nuclear disaster, was a chance encounter at Kiev. It was during rehearsals of the play Anna Karenina when the two met and Alexandrovich secretly informed him about the secret antenna that he had discovered. 

Fedor considered himself a child of Chernobyl and was one of the unfortunate to have been exposed to the deadly radiation of 1987. His inquisitive nature later made him discover a giant radar in Ukraine that still emanated radio transmission. This particular radio tower would make a tuk tuk sound, which earned it he nickname The Russian Woodpecker. It also became the subject of Gracia's documentary. Chad's documentary presents a very plausible explanation behind the Chernobyl incident. The Film Hashery tracked down the American filmmaker (at the time of the interview he was visiting Chernobyl) and spoke to him at length about his masterpiece.

(The Duga antenna in northern Ukraine (Image courtesy - Chad Gracia's Facebook page)

It’s been four years since this documentary came out, are you still in touch with Fedor? Is he safe in Ukraine?

 Yes, I am in touch with Fedor. I believe he is currently in San Francisco with an exhibit of his paintings.

How young were you when the Chernobyl incident occurred? Do you recall the incident? I am sure someone must have informed you or read the entire thing in newspapers. 

 I was around 15 years old and living in South Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Even though it was far away, I do recall a chill settling over the classroom when our teacher told us what happened. This was during the Cold War, and even though we realized rationally we were not in danger, there was some subconscious fear that the radiation would come to us in Middle America. 

Since when did you get fascinated by the Soviet culture, and what aspects of Soviet culture really appealed to you?

My love of Russian culture began when I started reading Russian literature, particularly Anna Karenina and The Idiot. After those two novels, I just dove deeper and deeper. Since we didn’t have any Russian classes at my high school, I majored in Russian in college, then went to live for a year in Moscow in 1993. 

I suppose most of my interest in Soviet culture has to do with a mix of nostalgia and the taboo nature of being able to look behind the Iron Curtain. When I was young, the USSR was like a land from outer space, so there was always a curiosity to see what it was really like. Most things about the USSR do not appeal to me now, but I do like: 1) the preciousness of friendship and family that people during Soviet times valued, because they knew they could not trust the state; 2) the monumental architecture, when done right, succeeds in creating a sense of awe (for instance, MGU, the metro stations, the statue at Baba Yar and the WWII memorial in Kyiv (the latter appears in my film), and 3) I appreciate the dark humour and jokes that Soviets employed in order to survive. But in general, it was not a place one would choose to live - fear, lack of freedom or rights, etc. all outweigh the positives.

Can you recall the exact moment when the thought of making The Russian Woodpecker struck you? 

Yes. Fedor and I were working on a theatre show, and he told me he had a dream about a giant antenna getting attacked by Don Quixote. I thought it was an odd idea but the more I listened to him, the more I decided it would be worth filming him going there to see this colossal Soviet weapon. 

If you read about Fedor he comes across as someone like a free bird, and you are more like a rationalist, someone who is extremely rational. What did the two of you bond over? 

Yes, Fedor was the artist/visionary and I was the producer/director/fire safety chief. That worked together well, he made me a bit crazier and I made him a bit more productive. 

How concerned were you about your safety when you were offered to screen your film in Moscow? 

At first I was nervous, but since almost all open documentary festivals have been closed down, the only festival that invited us was basically run by dissidents. So I felt very welcome there and our screenings in Petersburg and Moscow were among the most positively received.

In one of your interviews you had mentioned that your documentary is pro Russia. How?

No, I said it is not anti-Russia. It is anti-authoritarian and therefore anti-Soviet. Now, even in the US we have rising authoritarianism. The film is a warning to people about the dangers of governments that lie to their people and thus give rise to conspiracy theories and the breakdown of shared truth and civil society.

(Chad Gracia during the shooting of his documentry at Pripyat, Chernobyl (Image courtesy - Chad Gracia's Facebook page)

Last year, as many as three books came out on Chernobyl - Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham, Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe by Serhii Plokhy and Chernobyl 01 23 40 by Andrew Leatherbarrow. Were you able to find time to read any of the books. The fact that even after 33 years, people are still curious to know about what actually transpired at Chernobyl. 

 I did not have a chance to see them, as I’ve been absorbed in my latest project 100% (see below). Also, after five years, I needed a Chernobyl “time out”. 

How big a threat has Russia become to the world in the current geopolitical context? Their involvement in the US election has now been proven, then we saw them meddling in Venezuela. 

Outside of eastern Ukraine and a few other former Soviet republics, I do not think that Russia is a major threat in the traditional sense (tanks, rockets, guns). However, the threat that Russia presents is more of an existential one to the entire free world. 

Until recently there was a general understanding that authoritarian regimes would collapse upon themselves. Under Vladimir Putin, who is extremely clever and well trained in the psychology and politics of power, we have seen that citizens will gladly give up their freedom in exchange for psychological sense of greatness. This works especially well when it is coupled by a real or imagined external enemy. I think that Putin’s success - and that of his ‘protege’ Donald Trump - has unfortunately spread as an example for authoritarians everywhere - from China to America and throughout Europe and Asia. It is not necessarily the threat of war and it is not necessarily the threat of return to massive battles and huge casualties, instead it is the threat to the idea of liberal democracy. This is quite sad for me, because when I was in Moscow in the early 90s, all the Russians I met were in love with the idea of western democracy and they wanted to emulate nothing more that what they saw as an ideal system in the West. They wanted to live freely and without the fear. That is almost completely gone and has been replaced by xenophobia, suspicion, hyper-patriotism and war-mongering. And this cancer, which started most recently in Russia, is spreading all over the world - it’s behind Brexit, it’s behind Trump and it’s behind the rise of xenophobic populism everywhere. So again the threat that Russia presents is not nuclear but something far worse. It’s an existential threat to the foundations of modern civilisation, it’s a threat to the hard-earned peace fought for during the second World War. It’s a threat to the global order that has made the last 60+ years the most peaceful and prosperous in human history. 

(A still from The Russian Woodpecker (Image courtesy - Chad Gracia's Facebook page)

Finally, when can we expect an edge of the seat feature film from you…or will it be a documentary again? 

Yes, I am making a documentary called Sex in the Soviet Union. Its a trilogy and it’s about human sexuality in an era of authoritarianism. It is an epic trilogy and should be finished by the end of 2019.

(The Russian Woodpecker is currently playing on myNK)


Chad Gracia / Fedor Alexandrovich / The Russian Woodpecker / Chernobyl / Sundance Film Festival / Pripyat / Ukraine / Duga Antenna / Russia

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

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