The Russian Woodpecker
Chad Gracia (2015 USA) Andrei Alexandovich
Viewed: 12 June 2016; Part of Losing the Plot Film Festival
The cooked and the raw
The charismatic figure of Ukrainian artist Andrei Alexandrovich fronts up Gracia’s film. Alexandovich is both protagonist and shaman/clown. As protagonist, a driven investigator of a terrifying conspiracy theory. As shaman, a sensitised litmus paper responding to the psychic wounds inflicted on the Ukraine by the USSR. Alexandovich’s shaman is a pained visionary, a raw embodiment of the emotional reactions that characterise his country’s past and present relationship to Russia. An inventor of ritual to neuter the lies and poison of the past and make libations to the future. As clown, he makes us laugh.
Gracia’s film interweaves Alexandrovich’s rituals with: his attempt to find the real cause of the catastrophic Chernobyl reactor melt down; and the ‘street revolution’ of 2014 in Kiev that resulted in the deposal of the Ukrainian pro Russian elected leader, Yanukovych. The intercutting of the political, the real and the magico religious characterises the Russian Cuckoo, dynamically shifting the film’s focus, moving from the street, to the intellectual to the performance. But all these sequences these discrete elements are unified in the film as they draw on a similar quality: rawness. Gracia’s film is energised by the ecstatic rawness of street violence, the raw inebriation of a forensic quest, and the raw elemental intensity of ritual.
It is this rawness that comprises the truth content of the Russian Cuckoo informing the quality of relations between past and present, the Ukraine and Russia. The Rawness of history.
The film’s title refers to the electronic frequency, so called because it had a similar tempo to that of a woodpecker drilling a tree, that had been emitted by a huge structure, acronymically called the DUGA which was situated adjacent to the Chernobyl site. The DUGA was supposed to be the advanced USSR early warning system to alert against a surprise US missile strike. Apparently despite its huge cost, DUGA did not work.
From the first shots we see of Alexandrovich he presents as one possessed. And there is always something of the clown in him. His appearance, the way he looks, the way he plays with people and ideas. His personal history is closely tied to Chernobyl. As a young child in Kiev, after the Chernobyl explosion, he had been evacuated to escape the disastrous nuclear fallout over the city; despite this he had still suffered radiation poisoning. Chernobyl has invaded his being, penetrating and defining his body sensitising his soul.
Alexandrovich uses his power as an artist/shaman to reject history. He takes on the mantel of the shaman to re-form on his own terms his relation, physical and spiritual, to the toxic polluting nuclear plant, and through ritual makes his own bonds with earth water fire air, invoking the elements directly as his kindred spirit.
Rejecting History is to refuse to accept the orthodox Soviet line that Chernobyl was an accident. A vision of Alexandrovich’s father leads Andrei to the discovery of the DUGA. The revelation of the DUGA (and through the film’s cinematography we see and comprehend the size of this structure which is in itself a revelation) becomes the starting point for Andrei’s rejection of the conclusions of the cooked books of the Soviet investigation that the disaster was an accident. Alexandrovich guided by instinctive intuition follows the tortuous forensic trail through the undergrowth of Soviet bureaucracy. He finally locates in this undergrowth the name of a deceased but very high ranking member of the Soviet politbureau, who he believes would have had both reason to sabotage the Chernobyl reactor and the power to bully the technicians there into conducting the dangerous experiments that resulted in the catastrophe. Hence the Chernobyl disaster was not an accident, it was a wanton act of sabotage by the USSR. History.
I don’t think that it is critical to Gracia’s film whether Alexandrovich’s conspiracy theory conclusion convinces the viewer or not. What is important is the intensity of the psychic imperative to remould history that lies at the heart of Alexandrovich’s quest. His quest is tied to the sense of dread and terror posed by Putin’s re-invention of the Soviet Union, and implications of oppression and subjection for its neighbouring and client states. Most painfully denying these client states the opportunity to write/make their own histories and to come to terms with the horrors of their past.
The past is quickly subsumed into myth.
Gracia’s Russian Woodpecker shows, through Alexandrovich, the interplay of the key elements invoked at moments of attempting to shape the forces of history: the political the historic the personal. Most important perhaps is the personal. The recasting of personal identity to create a sense of destiny, a concentration of the qualities of conviction needed to provoke and survive revolution. The immanent feeling that as an individual you are connected to apersonal, cosmic forces. Alexandrovich becomes shaman, and in casting himself as a being connected to the elements, his nature takes on their elemental quality. In one sense Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky were themselves Shamans, ritually invoking and identifying themselves with the forces of history to justify and strengthen their own sense immovable sense of purpose. They are at one with historical destiny.
As the events of the 2013-14 revolution unfold so Alexandrovich is folded up into the events. Deeply implicated by his Chernobyl research he disappears from view, intimidated after a visit from the secret police. The final sequence of Russian Woodpecker takes place on a stage in Maiden square at some point in the climax of the violence. Alexandrovich returns, not as Shaman but as Clown. Alone on the stage, in strange light to he declaims his findings about the Chernobyl conspiracy to an emptiness. His raw strangeness of his disclamation falls into a huge pit of emptiness and indifference as smoke and chaos of revolution fill out the void. A clown playing out a performance for the camera or for history. Or perhaps both. Adrin Neatrour firstname.lastname@example.org