Interview: Documentarian Chad Gracia Talks About Finding ‘The Russian Woodpecker’

TheRussianWoodpeckerThe Best Documentary Feature shortlist was just announced and the saddest omission is director Chad Gracia’s illuminating work, The Russian Woodpecker. A stark and terrifying tale of conspiracy theories and government collusion, it’s a story that demands attention the world over. Regardless of its awards prospects, Gracia’s examination of the Chernobyl disaster and the man affected by it all, Fedor Alexandrovich, remains one of the year’s best documentaries. Gracia sat down with Awards Circuit to talk about the film, working with the mad genius Alexandrovich, and more.

Kristen: This documentary presents an interesting side to the Chernobyl disaster. For many Americans it’s something that happened years ago and we’ve never heard of the long-lasting impact of it. Why, more so for the uninitiated, is Chernobyl such a monumental issue for the people of Ukraine? I equated it to “9/11 without the closure.” Is that an accurate statement?

Chad Gracia: Yeah, I think you’re correct. It was their 9/11 but, to extend the metaphor, it would have had to result in the collapse of the entire U.S. government because Chernobyl is one of the reasons why the Soviet Union fell. After that they wholeheartedly stopped believing in everything the government said. When the government took 18 days before they addressed the people – they didn’t even tell the people who lived right next to it – that’s when the Soviet state lost its legitimacy in the eyes of everyone, particularly the Ukraine.

Why it’s relevant now is because it’s a reminder in which the ways the Soviet government devalued human life, the risks they were willing to take, the lies they were willing to tell, and how they handled the disaster in general. Whether Fedor is correct or not, there were many crimes of negligence committed that led to Chernobyl, and I think people are still psychologically scarred in Ukraine, Belarus and parts of Russia.

K: It’s interesting watching this from a cultural perspective with the government taking 18 days to respond to the crisis. Would you say this hopefully gives Western audiences something new to see in terms of seeing government?

CG: I can tell you one thing, as an American, I was very skeptical of Fedor’s theory. When I first met Fedor, a few years before the revolution, all he talked about was “Russia is going to rise up and invade,” and everyone thought he was nuts. He’d also talk about the ghosts of the Soviet Union and these people who still miss Stalin. And I, as an American, thought that was all ancient history, that it was all long buried. And that was amazing, as I worked on this film, that Fedor, in some ways, is an antenna himself. He sees things more sensitively than us, and he’d write about the revolution coming and troops invading his country, and maybe he’s also right about his theory at Chernobyl.

The main thing I learned is the certain naivete Americans have…we haven’t gone through the murder of millions of our citizens at the hands of our government. Learning by walking in Fedor’s shoes, and how strong the remnants of this horror called the Soviet Union is in his life, was the biggest eye-opener as an American. It’s important to know why the Ukrainians are so nervous about Russia and nervous about a return to Cold War thinking. This film’s through Fedor’s eyes, and through the experience of his family’s, and takes you on a journey and gives you a strong argument as to why they’d be terrified to a return to things in the 20th-century.

K: Fedor is our antihero. He’s one you’d immediately assume is crazy, yet starts making so much sense as things progress. And when he is threatened by the secret police, eventually turning on you and the documentary, that’s frightening because it enhances the possibility he’s telling the truth. Was there a serious discussion about abandoning the documentary?

CG: Yeah, there was a big fear of that. Fedor backed out of the investigation and refused to do an important interview in Moscow. And then he started telling us his research was wrong and he was mistaken, it seemed very strange. We didn’t know what was going on, clearly something was wrong with him. That’s when Artem [Ryzhykov, cinematographer] suggested to go and meet with him with a secret camera, and that’s the only way we learned the secret police were threatening him. They told him I was working for the CIA and not to trust me. He wanted to destroy our footage but luckily we had a copy in New York.

At that point, I didn’t know if I had a film because without my protagonist I didn’t have a good story. I went back and started thinking about ending the project early. Then, the revolution intensified and Fedor somehow got the courage to stand up that’s at the center of the film now. In terms of his safety, it’s very complicated. In that part of the world you never really know if you’re safe or not; he definitely took some risks in doing what he did. In retrospect, with the pro-Russian government out of power he’s relatively safe but when people ask Fedor he says “It’s not about me. We’re all in danger so long as there’s this Soviet beast trying to come back to life.”

K: What was it like working and collaborating with Fedor?

CG: Fedor is a mad, crazy artist so it was very chaotic and distinct. When we first started our investigation I lined up a list of colonels and engineers and scientists, and Fedor said “No, this will never bring us the truth, not in this part of the world. The only way we can uncover the ghosts is through my dreams. We have to recreate my nightmares.” And he was adamant that this was essential.

I had a small budget; I just wanted to do a little, short film, maybe put it on YouTube. I also thought there might be something to this idea of him reenacting his dreams, and also he wouldn’t agree to do my investigation unless I agreed to film his. So he had his dream investigation and I had my investigation, and they went on in parallel. And soon I took a liking to Fedor’s dream investigation and he was intrigued by mine, especially when people we would interview were clearly lying to us, and that peaked Fedor’s curiosity and fears and inspired him to go on this journey to find the truth.

K: And I’ll assume it was his idea to climb the Duga tower?

CG: That was definitely his idea! I was not up there; it’s radioactive, rusty, it sways in the wind. It’s insane. But, you know, the world needs crazy people like Fedor. Whether he’s got all the details right it’s important people ask these questions and have the courage to ask why are the documents still locked up in Moscow? Why did we never have a trial? Why has there never been a real investigation? Why are all the historians saying there’s a cover-up? Who could have benefitted?

One of the reviewers said Fedor’s either Don Quixote or Edward Snowden. I give enough evidence for people to make their choice. Even if you don’t agree with Fedor, you may find value in the film because it’s a testament, it’s a document about what happens to a society that’s been traumatized for so many generations, and when people have lost faith, and where conspiracies are as close as you can get to the truth.

K: What was the planning with regards to the hidden cameras? I saw a lot of Errol Morris in there, in terms of doing whatever you had to in order to get stuff on tape. And you eventually have to turn the cameras against your protagonist.

CG: I was frustrated because we’d spent many months and a lot of money trying to answer the simple question, “What on Earth does this radar do?” And no one would give us a straight answer; everyone gave us contradictory answers. I just felt when you’re being lied to, it makes you want to get to the truth. At the time it seemed like the only way we could find out what was going on was to use secret cameras. The fears, the Stalinst, pro-Soviet people were so tight-lipped that there was no other way, so it became an undercover investigation. And then Fedor became the enemy. Fedor became everything he was fighting against, so he shouldn’t have been surprised that we turned the cameras on him. I did hesitate for a short time, but Artem said, “Don’t worry, he’s been filming you with secret cameras.” And then we learned Artem was filming both of us with secret cameras, so we had this trio of paranoia, and that’s exactly what it was like living in the Soviet Union, where you can’t even trust your friends, where people were spying on each other. That’s when I realized, 100%, that Fedor was right; that these Soviet ghosts were still alive. It infected our crew and our whole project.

After we shot it, and when we were ready for premiere, all the ethical questions came to the fore of whether we could include this or not. I approached Fedor – he didn’t see any rough cuts of the film till our premiere at Sundance – and told him the day before that we filmed him with secret cameras, and asked if he was okay [with it]. The first question from the audience to Fedor was “How do you feel about that?” I had no idea what he’d say. He said, “Well, I thought I was the protagonist of the film. Now I realize Chad has made me the protagonist and the antagonist, and that’s even better for me.” Fedor understands that in order for a documentary to be true about its hero – there’s no such thing as a pure hero. He went through a whole range of emotions. He’s never purely good or evil. He’s bouncing around and struggling like the rest of us.

K: I did want to ask about how the documentary came about? When did you first hear about Chernobyl and how did that propel you into working on this?

CG: I’d never made a film before. I was working with Fedor in Kiev on a play. I was producing a play and he was the designer. While we were working on the play he kept pulling me aside and whispering in my ear about a Russian Woodpecker. I thought originally he wanted me to  go to a zoo or something, but eventually I learned it was about a secret Soviet weapon that people in America thought was a mind control device. I thought this could make an interesting five-minute piece. I agreed, if only to shut Feodor up, and look into this giant, secret weapon that happens to stand next to Chernobyl.

I didn’t know much about Chernobyl; I know as much as the average American. I was a kid when it happened and it didn’t make a big impact on me. But the more I started learning about this Russian Woodpecker and interviewing people who’d lived through Chernobyl, and started uncovering connections between Chernobyl and the Woodpecker, the more I got sucked in. I didn’t know about the genocide of the Ukrainian people, but I learned about it through Fedor’s family and Fedor’s eyes.

K: For me, the big “Aha” moment involves the reveal of the phone call from the government head to the Chernobyl reactor leading up to the disaster; the decision from the top brass to allow the reactor to malfunction. Was there a different moment for you where you thought, “We really have something here?”

CG: I thought Chernobyl was an open and shut case, like most Americans. I thought the fastest way to prove this, to Fedor and everyone else, was to get an interview with the head of the Soviet Union’s Investigatory Committee, who was still alive, and with the Ukraine head investigator as well. I met with the both of them, and Kamorov, who was in charge of the Soviet Union’s investigation, looked me in the eye and said, “Listen, if you want to understand Chernobyl, you have to understand who made the fateful phone call on the night of Friday, the 25th, which led to the explosion on the 26th.” That man…was a central Party operative of the Central Committee in Moscow. His call led to the explosion and we still don’t know why he called.

When we asked for the documents, we saw them but then they were taken away and redacted, even worse the timings were all swapped around. This was told to me by people at the very highest national level, basically looking me in the eye and telling me…the criminal has not been caught. The person who made the phone call, who forced the experiment that blew the reactor, is your man. That’s when I started to doubt the official story that it was just an accident. We met with this individual. We gave him a chance to defend himself but his defenses weren’t compelling to me. And we met more historians who confirmed the person who was sent to prison was innocent, the trial was a show trial, and this individual called for some reason that’s never been fully investigated. Fedor, for the first time, put together a compelling case for what happened that night and that’s the heart of our story.

K: Was there anything that you wanted to include that you couldn’t – whether for pacing, safety, etc. – that didn’t make it in?

CG: We had ten times more stuff than you can find room for. We had five separate stories: We had Ukraine’s history; we had the story of the Chernobyl catastrophe; we had the story of this secret weapon; we had the story of Fedor’s dreams, which is a whole separate investigation with Fedor walking naked across the Ukraine; and we had the story of the revolution. At first it was just a big, chaotic mess. Then, I realized I wanted to focus on one story, and that’s of Fedor’s psychological journey. The journey from a four-year-old, irradiated boy sent to an orphanage, to the man who eventually stands up to the ghosts of the Soviet Union, and anything else that didn’t support, clarify, or explain that journey I cut. And that was a lot because I wanted the film to feel like a psychological thriller, like a brisk investigation.

One of the things I had to cut, there’s a lot more evidence, tons of fascinating, technical information about the antenna that didn’t make it in. This antenna’s just one of an array of three antennas that work together but we didn’t want to get bogged down in the complexities of how radar defenses work. Building this thing actually led to the creation of the supercomputer in Russia, and that’s fascinating to me but it didn’t make it. Then there’s a whole Cuba connection, because this antenna was aimed over the North Pole and went over America and they calibrated it in Cuba. Our criminal spent time in Cuba and there was a lot of history of his time there, so there was a whole subplot. In the end I realized that is six minutes we don’t need to understand Fedor; it’s just giving more information that’s not conclusive. It’s more compelling, but I wanted to keep this film focused on Fedor’s psychological state, so we had to cut this interesting information which also supports Fedor’s theory. [All of these cut scenes are available on iTunes.]

K: What is the hope for the documentary in terms of both awards and changing hearts and minds? How has the awards consideration journey been?

CG: We’ve been so surprised and delighted. We set out to initially make a 5-7 minute piece for YouTube, so the fact we won at Sundance and other festivals around the world…and now we’re one of six nominations for Best Documentary Feature from the International Documentary Association with Amy and The Look of Silence. For us, it’s absolutely mindblowing that we’ve got so much critical acclaim. Our producers and distributors are extremely confident we’ve got a shot at maybe getting a little further along in the awards journey. It’s been unexpected but also wonderful. We’ve got a whole shelf of prizes and awards; it’s a great feeling. We didn’t set out, before the revolution started, we weren’t part of the wave of people who went down there to capture it; it captured us.

K: I can only imagine Fedor’s speech if this wins at the Oscars! I want Fedor  to accept his speech in Saran-Wrap and a torch.

CG: I can make a promise to the world that if we get nominated Feodor will show up naked in Saran-Wrap with a torch!