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Russian Woodpecker, The
The Russian Woodpecker starts off as an interesting character study of part time kooky performance artist/part time conspiracy theorist Fedor Alexdrovich, who's convinced that the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear tragedy was an inside job by a high ranking Soviet official in order to cover up the failure of an insanely expensive military communications system, then gradually turns into an intricate examination of Fedor's theories, some of which so chillingly makes sense that by the end of the doc, we end up inside the asylum looking out, instead of the other way around.
Director Chad Gracia does an admirable job balancing a chillingly straightforward documentation of Fedor's various eccentricities, which range from thankfully short sections of his performance art where he walks around with a makeshift nuclear suit from hell, to him walking around Chernobyl, where there's still ten times the normal amount of radiation in the air, as if he's going out on a refreshing stroll. Gracia combines this footage with interviews with nuclear experts and Chernobyl officials, who back up a surprising amount of Fedor's theories, as well as archival news footage that brings together a big picture full of obvious foul play by the then communist Russian government. By the time the pieces start coming together, it's hard to dismiss Fedor as a kook anymore, no matter how weird and eccentric his behavior becomes.
Through his research and the documentary crew's insistence on following up with their leads by any means necessary (Including some secret camera shenanigans that could have easily put the crew's lives at risk), Fedor finds out that the military communications compound, which basically consists of a giant antenna that's officially meant to give the Russian government an extra fifteen minutes of prep time in case a nuclear warhead is sent their way, failed in its mission to provide this safety net, thanks to the strong radio signals from the northern lights. Yep, you read that right, the most awesome and expensive military project in Russian history turned into the world's largest paperweight because of those colorful lights above the Norwegian skyline, pictures of which can be found on many a Windows 10 wallpaper.
Fedor believes that, fearing that the upcoming investigation into the compound would have revealed the failure of the project, those responsible in the government deliberately caused the meltdown in Chernobyl, killed thousands of people, destroyed an entire community, basically to save their own careers. This sounds like a bunch of "9/11 was an inside job" crap that we hear all the time Stateside, but considering the history of brutal subjugation of Ukranians by the Russians, including a period in the 1930s when Russia deliberately starved thousands of Ukranians to death, the theory doesn't sound as far-fetched, despite the fact that the message comes from a man whose obsession with finding the truth makes him more and more unhinged as the doc moves along.
Gracia does put together a case for Fedor's argument during many sections of his documentary, but The Russian Woodpecker is far from a foaming-at-the-mouth conspiracy theory demagoguery like Loose Change and all those lovely YouTube videos accusing families who lost their first grade children to senseless gun violence of being hired actors for false flag operations. The film doesn't shy away from exposing many of Fedor's reckless behavior, and invites the audience to eventually make up their own minds. This is what turns The Russian Woodpecker into a fascinating character study/conspiracy doc.
The Russian Woodpecker looks remarkably clean and sharp while upconverted to 1080p on a HDTV. That might be because the shortness of the doc, 80 minutes, could afford the disc to contain a fairly high bitrate. There are some random aliasing issues here and there, but not enough to get in the way of the viewing experience.
We're offered two options in lossy Dolby Digital, 2.0 and 5.1. Since this is a very talking-heavy documentary, complete with hidden camera footage where the sound comes off incredibly muffled, it's perfectly fine to watch The Russian Woodpecker through your regular TV speakers. The 5.1 track adds a little bit of ambiance sound during the Chernobyl stroll sequences, but that's about it.
Climbing The Duga: Gorgeous POV footage of Fedor climbing the giant antenna.
Deleted Scenes: Six minutes of deleted material, some interesting stuff, but nothing essential.
Dreams of Fedor: A two-minute clip that combines an interview with Fedor with footage of his performance art.
Epilogue: A two-minute scene that was supposed to be the original ending. I prefer the one we got, it's much more ominous.
More Duga Secrets: Four minutes of deleted interview footage with military and nuclear experts.
We also get a Trailer.
Fast paced, engagingly edited, and surprisingly levelheaded considering its subject matter, The Russian Woodpecker is a delight for those who are interested in conspiracy theories, or the recent history of the frail Russian-Ukranian relations.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com