The Russian Woodpecker: NZFF Review
The ghosts of the past come back in surprisingly shocking form in The Russian Woodpecker, a film that starts with the disclaimer that the film-makers wish in no way to endanger relations between the Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.
Spearheaded by Ukranian Fedor Alexandrovich, a cross between Elijah Wood, a shaggy dog and a Simpsons overbite, this doco is nothing short of staggering and shocking as it draws a long bow that one Russian high up instigated the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown to cover his arse because a weapons monitoring service nearby wasn't working properly.
However, thanks to the deft investigations, questioning and presentation of facts, it doesn't look as if that bow is far off its mark - in fact, judging by the behaviour of some of his interviewees and their refusal to shift from Russian programming, Alexandrovich's claims make perfectly horrific sense. In fact throughout his chats, Fedor can occasionally be seen losing control of his eyes as his mind races to the conclusions he perhaps didn't want to get to.
As the doco proceeds deeper down this dark path, various family members worry about Fedor's safety - and with good cause too, given that Russia isn't exactly known for free press and given that there's conflict brewing in Ukraine which is showcased within this, they would appear to have grounds for concern. Certainly, one sequence in the film makes as much a case for free speech in film-making as Jafar Panahi would attest to. The tentacles of the Soviet Union may have been quelled through the years but if this is anything to be believed, they will never stop thrashing.
In fact, you may argue the conspiracy theory is in full flight here, but Alexandrovich's quest is an intriguingly dark and sharp one (give or take one or two moments when the artistic side of this colourful character indulges himself). The Russian Woodpecker delivers a stark warning to both Putin and the outside world of what lies ahead but overwhelmingly, the message is also one of paranoia given loud rational voice; the questions raised here point to answers which are chilling, and the discussions over ultimate power will ring true long after the doco's finished airing.
Urgent and compelling, contemporary and yet historical, The Russian Woodpecker is without a doubt the strongest doco I've seen at this year's festival - not just for the issues raised about Chernobyl, the Ukraine and Russia but also for the censorship and freedom of speech.