“The Russian Woodpecker”
Sundance.org is dispatching its writers to daily screenings and events to capture the 10 days of festivities during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Check back each morning for roundups from the previous day’s events.
The Russian Woodpecker
by Eric Hynes
There’s a long tradition of documentaries that seek to address, inform, and even influence the discourse around politics and social justice. But The Russian Woodpecker is a uniquely incendiary case. Not only was it made during a time of extreme tumult and conflict in the Ukraine—when history was being written and revised on a daily basis—but its assertions are so inflammatory that director Chad Gracia now fears for his subjects’ safety. Meanwhile, and in turn, the subjects fear for all of ours.
The film follows artist Fedor Alexandrovich as he attempts to get to the bottom of the Chernobyl disaster, which took place when he was only four and yet profoundly influenced the course of his life, as well as the trajectory and culture of his country. He surmises that there’s a link between the leaked reactor and Duga, a notorious nearby radio antenna. A massive wall of metal and electricity, Duga sent out the pounding, radio wave-interfering noise of the film’s title, but apparently failed to live up to its Cold War-altering potential for global espionage. By linking the Duga’s failure to the Chernobyl disaster, Fedor asserts a conspiracy that dares to expose the darkest heart of the Soviet Union, and furthermore echoes with Russia’s current brazen behavior regarding the Ukraine. In a startling turn of events, the film shows that Fedor’s assertions are accurate enough to engender threats for his own safety—threats that are only overshadowed by a conflict that threatens the entire country.
At the post-screening Q&A on Friday night, Gracia was joined by both Alexandrovich and cinematographer Artem Ryzhykov, both of whom received a prolonged standing ovation. “I’m afraid for these guys to go back,” Gracia said. While he was happy with the film’s positive reception at the Festival, there’s a danger in notoriety. “We were blown away that we got accepted [into Sundance]. I thought there might be a few little notices somewhere, but it’s been in the news quite a bit, and it’s reached Russia. We haven’t talked it all through, but I’m pretty nervous for these guys to go back,” he said. “There’s a long arm if you offend people in Russia.”
When members of the audience echoed these fears, the gentlemen directed discourse away from their individual situations. “I think the time for me to be personally afraid is past,” Ryzhykov said, his head solemnly bowed for much of the discussion. “Now is the time for me to be afraid for my country. And afraid for the whole world. Because there’s a terrorist in power in Russia that might destroy all of us.”
Neither man soft-pedaled his assertions regarding the current situation in the Ukraine or regarding the Russian leadership, which they clearly see as a reinstalled Soviet-style power. “Equally as dangerous as nuclear weapons is the culture of lies and corruption that Russia is spreading throughout the world. Mostly having a strong effect in the Ukraine and in parts of Europe,” Fedor said. But lest the United States think that it’s far removed from these events, he talked of the perception of U.S. involvement in Russia. “Americans have not fully realized the depth of the madness of the Russian leadership,” he said. “If you believe Putin, he’s fighting a war against Americans in the Ukraine. That the entire revolution is a CIA-funded American invasion. He believes this. And the Russian people believe this.”
Gracia said that the culture of distrust runs so deep that both Fedor and Artem feared that Gracia was himself a CIA spy. While he said that wasn’t true, he did admit that he did once work for the CIA “sometime far in the past,” and was impressed that they had sleuthed this. “We were all kind of suspicious of each other for a few weeks, and didn’t know who was telling the truth,” he said. But that also extended to the relationship between Fedor and Artem, culminating in Artem filming his friend with a secret camera when he tried to quit the film under suspicious circumstances.
“Fedor did not know that he was being filmed by a secret camera,” Gracia said. “He didn’t know until a few days ago—he had never seen the film until the premiere. But luckily afterwards he looked at me and said, ‘Well, I guess now I’m the protagonist and the antagonist.” The circumstances may have seemed suspicious, but they were ultimately all about the safety of his family. “Why was Fedor recanting? I understood after seeing the footage. I would have done the same thing,” Gracia said
Despite the gravity of what’s asserted in the film, as well as the ongoing tumult in the Ukraine, where both Fedor and Artem could be drafted into the army at any moment, they also talked about the creative joys of working on the film, which involved playful and surreal theatrical sequences as well as daredevilish encounters with the towering Duga.
Gracia said that he started with only enough funding to make a five-minute film, but kept going once it became clear what and whom he was dealing with. “I was just going to do the talking heads,” he said. “And Fyodor said, ‘here’s how we’re going to answer this—I had a dream. First thing, I must get naked, build a raft out of mirrors, sail across a radioactive sea with a torch, and that’s how we’ll get somewhere.’ And I thought, I don’t have the money or the time for this, but let’s do it.” Years later, here they were in Park City, presenting a film that was making ripples back home and throughout the world.
City of Gold
by Jeremy Kinser
The familiar sounding title City of Gold might at first be off-putting, but within minutes of watching this utterly captivating look at Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold it’s obvious that it fits its subject to a tee. Director Laura Gabbert’s documentary premiered at Sundance in the U.S. Documentary competition.
“It’s a film about using all your senses,” Sudance programmer Hussein Currimbhoy said while introducing the film. “It’s a journal on how to live in Los Angeles, but it’s also about this country.” Gabbert’s cameras chronicle Gold as he dines at numerous hole-in-the-wall eateries and food trucks in Los Angeles that aren’t usually visited by other restaurant reviewers. He feasts on everything from insects to deer penis, but, as Currimbhoy suggested, City of Gold is as much a portrait of the vast cultural landscape of L.A. and the U.S. as it is ostensibly about Gold.
The film ends on a perfect note as Gold reads an essay he wrote following the L.A. riots in 1992 in which he celebrates the cultural diversity of his hometown and suggests that unity can always be achieved by dining at the same table.
During the Q&A that followed the film, the director revealed that Gold’s writing helped her become acclimated to the city when she moved there in the mid-‘90s to attend graduate school and that she had many negative preconceptions about L.A. “I started reading Jonathan’s writing and I credit him with changing my perspective about L.A.,” she said. “He got me to see it in a different way. L.A. is one of those places where you have to dig a little deeper. It doesn’t have that immediate charm of San Francisco or the cultural heft of New York. It made me start to love the city and I started to explore it more.”
It took some time for Gabbert to convince Gold to let her cameras follow him. He advised her upfront that she wouldn’t be allowed to film him reviewing restaurants and he wouldn’t let her see any kind of conflict. “I had no interest in breaking up the marriage or getting fired just so it would help with the narrative arc,” Gold said to laughter from the audience. Gold also spoke about surrendering the anonymity that is the hallmark of many restaurant critics.
“At this point I’ve been reviewing restaurants in LA for nearly 30 years so any restauranteur who needs to know who I am knows who I am,” Gold disclosed. “I’m not a shrinking violet.”
The audience was naturally curious about the culinary skills of Gold, who insisted he is not a chef. “I’m a very avid and happy home cook every day, even when I’m going out I’ll cook for my family,” he shared.
10 Days of Independence
We’re celebrating 10 Days of Independence at the Sundance Film Festival with 10 Sundance Institute Members. Check the Daily Roundup to meet a new member each day and find out what they’re here to see, what they’re talking about and what Sundance film character they want to compete against in a dance-off. Most likely, you’ll find them to be a reflection of the organization they support – independent and inspiring.
You can celebrate 10 Days of Independence too. Join Sundance Institute today at sundance.org/join. Today’s member of the day—and Sundance alumni who composed the music for Wetlands—is Enis R. from Berlin.
What are you excited to see?
I am very curious about Slow West and Advantageous.
Which Sundance filmmaker would you hope to share a shuttle with?
John MacLean (Slow West)
What’s your favorite Sundance movie?
Why are you a Sundance member?
The Sundance Composers Lab was an inspiring experience which had a wonderful impact on my life. Since then I feel deeply connected to Sundance.
Which favorite Sundance film character would you want to compete against in a dance-off?
I would love to dance against the whole Little Miss Sunshine family as this would be pure fun.