bold filmmaking

THE RUSSIAN WOODPECKER – MORE PARANOID, MORE FASCINATING THAN A BOND THRILLER!

russian woodpecker poster

The real life protagonist of The Russian Woodpecker, Chad Gracia’s  astonishing documentary feature, the winner of World Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2015, is the most fascinating ideas man you can imagine.

His name is Fedor Alexandrovich and he is an Ukrainian artist with a traumatic past: his ancestors were murdered by the Soviets, sent to gulags or forced to renounce their family, and he was only four years old in 1986 when the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown happened, an event that forced him to leave his home due to the toxic effects of irradiation. Now 33, he is a “radioactive man” with strontium in his bones and a singular obsession with the earth-changing catastrophe – why did it actually happen?

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Fedor Alexandrovich

Chad met Fedor on the set of a play he was putting on in Kiev where Fedor worked as a set designer. Fedor kept whispering to Chad about the “Russian woodpecker,” a giant, mysterious antenna nicknamed such for the strange, constant clicking radio frequencies that it emitted during the Cold War and which had been terrorising the radio frequencies in Europe and America during that time, so much so that many Americans believed it to be a Soviet mind-control device.

For Fedor, this strange device that the Soviets built only 2 miles from the Chernobyl nuclear station, represented a very deep and dark mystery: what was its real use and was there more to the Chernobyl story than the Soviet government let on? Is it possible that there might have been a criminal mind behind the Chernobyl catastrophe that the world doesn’t know about? As incredible as this may sound, is it possible that Chernobyl was blown up on purpose??

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The “Russian Woodpecker”

These were questions without answers and just another “conspiracy theory” until the day Fedor decided to confront the Russian Woodpecker that is now rotting away in an off-limits military facility in the middle of the radioactive Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

In one of the most astonishing visual sequences of the film, Fedor is sailing naked across a radioactive sea on a raft of mirrors which he himself constructed following a dream he had about the mysterious device.

Steeped in a climate of paranoia, with the Russian Secret Police threatening Fedor into closing his investigation and all sorts of dangers lurking at every step of the way, Chad Gracia’s documentary is more fascinating than a Bond thriller!

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Fedor Alexandrovich, director Chad Gracia and cinematographer Artem Ryzhykov

Dana Knight: The Russian Woodpecker is a most compelling story. I loved the way the pieces of the puzzle were put together by Fedor’s inquisitive mind and the way you conducted the investigation that followed. What wasn’t perfectly clear to me is this: did Fedor form his theory about the Chernobyl disaster not really being an accident before you started shooting or is this incredible discovery a result of the film?

Chad Gracia: No, our main interest was in the antenna, our plan was to debunk the conspiracy theory that the antenna was a mind control device. He just had some sort of artistic fascination with this object, he described it to me many times but he spoke of it in terms of some sort of aesthetic urgency that he had about witnessing it, feeling it, approaching it. Fedor is very sensitive, he sort of follows his instincts, he has his own creative antenna. But I don’t think he had any rational idea for why he has to go there, he was just drawn to it.

Knight: In a sense, it would have been even more astonishing if Fedor put all the pieces of the puzzle together before you embarked on the investigation.

Gracia: Yes but as you see in the film, it only came about because people were very nervous when asked about the antenna. That made him suspicious. And Fedor says that he could never believe such a thing was possible, but that was actually the direction that his research took him. We came about it in a way naively, we really did not expect to find what we found. It was supposed to be a very short film about this antenna.

Fedor+Torch

Knight: I know, but even if he had the idea to begin with, he would have probably only gradually disclosed his thoughts to you, because to hit you with all these crazy ideas from the start, it would have been too much for you to take on, I guess.

Gracia: Well, you would have to ask Fedor, he certainly is a very mysterious guy! But in my opinion it started more as just an investigation: there’s this strange object, this enormous antenna that no one knows much about, it’s standing next to Chernobyl, it’s dying to be filmed, it’s dying to be explored, it’s ready to be questioned. That’s what we did, without any assumptions at all when we started.

Knight: How did you get access to those Russian former high officials? That must have been difficult.

Gracia: Well, when we first reached out to them we didn’t say anything about me, an American, being involved, I would just show up. And after many months of getting nowhere, we realised that my showing up made them not really want to speak with us. That was a step in the wrong direction. So at that point we got a special apartment with a kind of a cubby where I could hide, so they never knew there was an American director involved. I used to Skype to send questions to the team and clarifications during the interview. The question as to why they agreed to meet, I think originally when our Ukrainian contact called them, she said, “Look, they want to talk about your life”. These guys used to be at the top of the Soviet pyramid, they were heroes of their day and now they are all forgotten, living on tiny pensions, in crumbling apartments and no one cares about them. So they have someone coming to talk about their youth and about their technological achievements which were quite significant. This antenna, we don’t have time to get into it in the film, but it spurred a lot of research into super computers in Russia. Being able to assess the signal was incredibly difficult. So they were very proud of what they achieved and they wanted to talk about it but not with an American.

Knight: I found that very funny, the way they became immediately suspicious when the word “American” was pronounced. They are basically still caught in the past.

Gracia: I was surprised too, I thought the Cold War was ancient history, I really did not expect these guys to still be living in that world. But Fedor was the one who kept telling me, “No, Chad, you don’t understand, the Cold War is still alive, the Soviet ghosts are still haunting Ukraine, they are everywhere”. I thought he was crazy. He was also the first one to say that the Soviet Union is coming back, there’s going to be war. And he said this to everyone who was listening but everyone thought he was crazy. This was months before the annexation of Crimea, or the events in Eastern Ukraine. Again Fedor is kind of an antenna, he’s like all great artists, he’s very sensitive to things before the rest of us.

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Knight: The timing of your documentary was perfect in a way: the progression of the documentary found resonance in the Revolution that was happening around you.  And this climate of paranoia, with the Russian Secret Police that started interfering with your project, and your own paranoia about the other team members filming a parallel film!

Chad: I know, it’s strange. It’s obviously unrelated that the Revolution broke out. And when I walked into the Chernobyl exclusion zone and when I got into the force-field of this antenna, my life became very surreal. And you’re right, the climate of paranoia engulfed us, as it eventually engulfed the whole city and the whole country. But that’s just a quirk of history and a sad fate for Ukraine, but it made our story so much more dramatic and timely than we expected it to be.

Knight: The moment the Secret Police interfered with your project was a key turning point in the film, you almost lost the project as Fedor wanted out. How did you get over that obstacle?

Gracia: Well, Fedor left and we had no film and I went back, I left the country trying to figure out how to salvage my project. And it was only when the Revolution kicked off that Fedor felt he had a patriotic duty to come back. This was three months later. But he had certain requirements. He said that he wanted to give the Secret Police final cut, final approval of the film, he told them that he would try to convince me of that. So we kind of agreed on that but within a week the Pro-Russian government fell and then luckily we never had to do that. Also we had to put the disclaimer, by way of a contract, Fedor was pressured to put this disclaimer in front of the film, that the film is not intended to disrupt relations between Ukraine and Russia.  I guess Fedor also felt that having his theory out in the world would make him safer than if he was the only one who had the theory. So he felt that, paradoxically, by publicising the theory he was safer. 

Knight: That’s actually the next question I wanted to ask: is Fedor safe now in Ukraine, is it safe for him to be there?

Gracia: In today’s situation, nobody knows who is safe and who is not safe in Ukraine. But when people ask Fedor if he feels he’s personally at risk, he answers: “Look, it’s not just me, it’s all of us. No one is safe as long as there’s such a madman at the helm of a nuclear armed country, who wants to bring back the Great Empire”. That’s what Fedor says. I think he’s safe, we hope he’s safe. We’ve been invited to Moscow to screen the film at a documentary film festival there. Fedor is terrified but I think I’ll go.

Knight: You’re not terrified?

Gracia: Look, I’m an American. As you probably know, an Ukrainian film director was recently sentenced to 20 years in prison following a mock trial. So Fedor is not entirely crazy to be nervous. But my hope is that the government there has much bigger worries than some documentary about some cover-up that happened 30 years ago.

Knight: Fedor is an amazing, fascinating character. Going back to how this project started, I understand that you two met on the set of a play that you were working on in Kiev.

Gracia: Exactly. And I immediately knew he was a special character, like out of a Dostoyevsky novel.

Fedor writing on mirror

Knight: What is also amazing is that you don’t come from a film background, you did theatre, this is your very first venture into filmmaking.

Gracia: Yes. But the film is quite theatrical in some ways, you can definitely feel the influence. But my experience in theatre was also as a dramaturge, dealing with story-structure, so that helped me a lot. But it’s true, all of us were first time filmmakers. Our cinematographer ARTEM RYZHYKOV  worked on something else before but this was his first major picture. He’s a genius.

Knight: He must be, the cinematography is incredible. The whole film is incredible.

Gracia: Yes, it was a magical, miraculous experience. The whole project, from concept, to how we got it financed, to our opening in New York on Friday and seeing people really enjoy it. People find it fascinating and they love it. That’s the best part about it.

Knight: You also mentioned you had a lot of footage. How did things go in the editing room, what did you decide to leave out and why? The film is very well put together, it is seamless.

Gracia: The editing was extremely complicated. We had five separate films that were apparently unrelated: Fedor’s dream, which was a long journey across Ukraine, we had the Chernobyl disaster, we had the technology of the radar, we had the conspiracy theory and we had the Revolution that was happening in Ukraine. And I was nearly at the end of my wits trying to figure out how to bring these stories together. And the moment when it all became clear for me is when I realised it’s really only one story: it’s the story of Fedor’s soul. The story of Fedor’s psychological journey. From the 4-year old irradiated child to the man who eventually stands up to the Soviet Union. At that point I decided to cut everything else, except for that which supported his journey. And it turned out that all of these things, the history of Ukraine, going back to what happened to his grandfather during the Revolution, even the antenna, all had elements that supported and even clarified and coloured Fedor’s journey. And I wanted the film to be very brisk, I wanted it to be short and feel like a thriller. I didn’t want it to be a 3-hour meditation. I wanted it to be an action thriller/detective story.

Knight: The fact that the film is short makes it even more impactful and it leaves you with a desire to see more. Maybe a sequel would be in order!

Gracia: Maybe, I’ll talk to Fedor about it. My thoughts were that I’d rather have people wanting more than being bored.

Knight: Where is the film on the festival circuit?

Gracia: We showed the film in Bucharest recently, I was there, it was lovely. And we’re going to Copenhagen next, the film is screening at CPH:DOX.

Knight: And do you have another film project you’re working on next?

Gracia: I have but it’s kind of top secret. In a couple of years I’ll hopefully have another film to chat to you about.

THE RUSSIAN WOODPECKER is opening in theaters in Los Angeles on October 30.

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Zero Motivation wins Best Narrative Feature at TRIBECA 2014

zero motivation poster

A smash hit in Israel and winner of the Best Narrative Feature Award at the Tribeca Film Festival 2014, Zero Motivation is a unique, sharply observed, sometimes dark and often hilarious portrait of everyday life for a unit of young, female soldiers in a remote Israeli desert outpost.  Pencil-pushers in the Human Resources Office, best friends Zohar (Dana Ivgy) and Daffi (Nelly Tagar) spend their time playing video games, singing pop songs, jousting with stationery and dreaming of Tel Aviv. If this sounds boring, the film is anything but. With shifts of tone that go from slapstick to satiric to horrifying with fluid ease, and with a superb supporting cast of characters, Zero Motivation is one of the most original films of 2014.

Below is an interview with writer-director Talya Lavie taken in LA in January 2015 on the occasion of the film’s theatrical release in US cinemas.

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Dana Knight: Congratulations on a very funny, witty and refreshingly unusual “army film”. Where did the inspiration come from? I suppose it has a lot to do with your own service in the military?

Talya Lavie: During my mandatory military service as a secretary, I dreamed of making an army movie with the pathos and the epic proportions of classic war-films, but about the gray, mundane service that my friends and I had, with hardly ever getting up from our office chairs. I was inspired and amused by the idea of using envelopes, coffee cups, office intrigues, staple guns and Solitaire in order to create a female response to the Israeli male-dominated army-films genre.

Knight: Although set in the war-zone, the action is restricted to the administrative office, the sealed world of secretaries who don’t risk their lives although they could easily die of boredom. What elements of the characters’ lives were exaggerated for the purposes of comedy and which aspects are more true-to-life?

Lavie: The setting of the administration soldiers is very true to life. Although the film has some imaginary and surrealistic elements, it’s actually very authentic. The characters are not exaggerated, but they are extreme. Being in the desert area far away from civilisation can sometimes change your perspective about things. The conflicts between the characters, who are so different from each other and yet stuck together, is what makes it funny.

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Israeli writer-director Tayla Lavie

Knight: I think you made a very brave and risky choice in introducing the subplot of the suicidal girl into a film whose tone is generally satiric and light. How did you manage that feat?

Lavie: The film is defined as a “dark comedy”, but while writing the script, I didn’t want to lock myself into a specific genre. I put a large scale of emotions in it, and was interested in mixing the different spirits. Ultimately my greatest challenge was to maintain the specific subtle tone of the film; to balance the transitions between humour, sadness, nonsense and seriousness. I felt like an acrobat in a circus walking on a rope, trying not to fall off, while keeping the film’s free spirit.

Knight: This is an army film with an almost all female cast, which is very unusual and also very ironic. How did the casting go?

Casting this ensemble was quite a complex puzzle. I had the privilege of working with one of the most accomplished Casting Directors in Israel- Orit Azulay. We auditioned over 300 actresses and ended up with extremely talented comedians and actors.

Dana Ivgy, who won the Israeli Academy Award for leading actress for her role as Zohar, is a very well-known actress in Israel- It was her third Academy Award. The other actresses were a little less known before the film, but now they are stars. Nelly Tagar (Daffi) and Shani Klein (Rama) were both nominated for Best Supporting Actress Award (which was given, by the way, to Dana Ivgy for an appearance in another film in the same year).

All the actors of Zero Motivation were extremely devoted to it. It was nice to see that although the film is all about ranks and hierarchy- none of that existed on set. They helped each other and created a terrific ensemble.  

Knight: Could you talk about your creative process of writing this film and the aesthetic choices you had to make along the way?

Lavie: After 2 years of writing and rewriting the script, I was very lucky to have my project selected for the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors’ Labs. Beyond being a significant experience for me as filmmaker, I believe it also helped secure the funds later on.

The hardest part in bringing the project to life was, naturally, raising funds. Many of the first readers had a hard time accepting a black comedy taking place in the Israeli army, while having little mention/ excluding references to the of occupation, combat, or other aspects of the tough reality – and so had difficulty putting the film into a specific category.
But it was important for me to keep the story confined to the walls of an office, apparently disconnected from the world outside and even escapist, but actually giving an authentic glimpse into the characteristic-militaristic society from a different point of view.

Another interesting challenge was creating a low-budget army film without any actually help from the army, nor any possibility of using any of the real Israeli-army bases for filming. The assembly of all details and locations to seem like a single and specific desert base was a complex effort that required all the crew’s creativity. Also, since the story takes place in 2004, we were surprised to discover how many things had changed over the last decade, but most were gadget-related, or had to do with older computers etc. The feelings and personal stories and dramas didn’t seem to change at all.

Cinematically, I wished to keep the monochromatic palette of the army base, its grey structures, crowded offices and rundown living quarters, set against the beautiful desert scenery of the south of Israel, with its warm colors, constant changing weather, and sense of freedom.

I can’t talk about all that without mentioning the wonderful crew I had on board: Eilon Ratzkovsky the Producer, Yaron Scharf the Cinematographer, Arik Lahav-Leibovich the Editor, Ron Zikno the Production Designer, Ran Bagno the Composer and many others. And of course the wonderful cast I mentioned before.

Knight: I had the impression that the mise-en-scene was very well thought-out and that you left nothing to chance, is that correct? What is your preferred manner of working on a film?

Lavie: We rehearsed a lot, also on location. We had a very short time for the shooting so I wanted to be as prepared as possible. Years ago, before I went to film school, I dreamed of becoming a comics-artist. So I guess I’m very influenced by graphic novel aesthetics, in terms of squeezing many details- stories, jokes and information- into every frame, as if somebody’s going to pause on each shot and take a longer look at it.

Knight: The film was enthusiastically received on the international film festival circuit. How was it received at home?

Lavie: Zero Motivation was released in Israel six month ago and was very well received, much more than we could have imagined, it broke box-office records in Israel and won 6 Israeli Academy Awards (for best script, best director, best leading actress, best editing, best casting and best original score) and the Israeli Critics’ Award for best Israeli film. It has a strong effect in Israel and I’m happy about it. Now we’re very excited to have it shown in the USA. The mandatory military service is a very local aspect of the Israeli culture but it’s used in the film as a platform to tell a universal coming of age story, about friendship and about being a young woman.

Knight: What is next for you and is there anything you would like to add?

Lavie: I’m working on my next feature film, which is a contemporary free interpretation of a short novel by Sholem Aleichem, transferring its plot from 19th century Eastern Europe to present-day Brooklyn. We’re now starting to raise the budget for its production. As I learned, those things can take a while, so in the meantime, I’m very proud and excited that Zero Motivation is shown in LA, I believe it could be interesting and entertaining for the American viewer and hope that people give it a chance. I know I like to walk into the cinema next to my home and find myself in a whole different world.

DIRECTOR CRAIG ZOBEL ON THE CONTROVERSY CAUSED BY HIS SECOND FILM, COMPLIANCE

Compliance poster

If you’re in the mood for a truly challenging emotional and intelectual experience this weekend, go and see Compliance, a film that plays in several cinemas across London including Curzon Soho, Barbican Centre, Hackney Picturehouse and Ritzy Cinema. But be warned, this film is not for the easily-offended and overly-judgemental so if you have a past history of walking out of controversial screenings, you are strongly advised to think twice about booking your ticket (there is always a Hollywood blockbuster at a different venue to delight and entertain you!).

The controversy surrounding the film is due to its honest and unapologetic depiction of the depth of human naiveté (to use an euphemism) in people susceptible of unquestioningly obeying figures of authority under duress, very much similar to what happened during the Holocaust. The writer-director Craig Zobel did not however “invent” the scenario for the film, this is a thoroughly researched movie based on true events that took place 70 times in USA during a period of 10 years.

At its LFF screening in London on 19t October 2012, about fifty people walked out of the screening, encouraging other people to do the same. This reaction was definitely not  due to boredom. Compliance is a taut, gripping and disturbing film that is indeed difficult to watch but out of respect for the filmmaker, take a moment to reflect on what he, and the film, has to say before you condemn it.

Below is an INTERVIEW WITH THE FILMMAKER CRAIG ZOBEL taken at the LONDON FILM FESTIVAL on 18 October 2012.

Dana: “What attracted you to this project, the idea of making a movie based on Stanley Milgram’s “Shock” experiment?”

Craig: “I am very interested in social psychology and when I read about the Stanley Milgram experiment I was very fascinated by its findings. This is part of a set of behavioural psychology experiments. In this case the whole experiment is about this doctor at Yale University studying people’s natural inclination to obey authority, even if they disagree personally with what the authority is saying. It’s really interesting how he did these tests, people thought they were electrocuting someone in the other room and they would say “I don’t really want to do this, this guy is screaming”. The “victim” was obviously an actor, it wasn’t really happening but they thought he was really electrocuted. And they would say “I really don’t feel comfortable doing this thing anymore” and then an authority figure would say “But you have to continue, you have serious responsibility to do so” and 65% of people would go along with this to the point that they would think they were giving lethal amounts of electric shock. So two thirds of people would do this. This experiment took place in the 60s but they redid it in 2007 and the results were similar.”

Dana:”The film is also inspired from a set of true events that took place in the USA quite recently, will you tell us more about that and how that influenced the premise of the film?”

Craig: “The true events are about a series of prank phone calls, these are not a real phone calls and the guy behind them ended up being caught but he was not convicted in the end due to lack of circumstantial evidence. So these crazy prank phone calls would lead to horrible things, consistently, and this because the people who received the call thought he was a real police officer. So the premise of my film concerns a woman who works at a fast-food restaurant as a manager, 45 years old, and she gets a phone call from the police on a Friday night when it is really busy in the restaurant and the guy on the phone says: “One of your employees stole money from a customer and I need you to question them”. And she says “Who?” and they say “It’s a young girl, she works at the front…”, “Becky?”, “Yes, Becky”. So she starts questioning Becky and Becky says “I didn’t do it”. And the policeman says “Why don’t you search her pockets? We could come there but if you could help with our investigation, it would be a really great help.” And then he asks “Why don’t you strip-search her?”. And this turns into an unbelievably crazy story as this woman strip-searched the young girl and kept her in the back room for four hours. And  similar events happened seventy times in America over a ten-year period. The most famous occurrence was in 2006 and this is when I heard about the story. And there is a case that is very similar to the one in the film although I took inspiration from other cases also”.

Dana: “The film created quite a stir at Sundance where it premiered earlier this year. Did you expect such a strong reaction?”

Craig: “Well, the interesting thing is that most people who hear about these case studies that are basically about the same phenomenon as the Milgram’s experiement,  or some of the people who watched the film , they immediately say: “But I would never do that…Not me…”. They would immediately cast themselves in the person who would not do such a thing but the fact is that two thirds of us would do it”. So for me the question was “Can I write something like this?” and yes, I can see how that would happen and still make it a film and make it interesting to watch, and follow all the other rules”.

Dana: “What were the challenges you encountered when making this film?”

Craig Zobel photo

Craig Zobel

Craig: “This is a film that I made because of the challenges involved, instead of in spite of its challenges. The film is about a pretty unbelievable subject, and you may see the film and say “yeah, you didn’t succeed at that”. And indeed it requires a pretty good performance to make that credible, because this is a kind of story that you hear and you go “How could you believe this?” So that was a challenge, making this credible”.

Dana: “Was the casting difficult?”

Craig: “Yes, partly because of the material. These roles were not everybody’s cup of tea, not everybody wants to play that. So it was a challenge to find the right people. And then the main thing was how to get the actors to have the same curiosity I had about these stories, because I think that really affected the performance. And they were pretty challenging and difficult roles because the film is dark. But for me it is about having a crew and cast that invests in the project”.

Dana: “How many shorts did you make before venturing into features?If any?”

Craig: “Not very many, I made shorts in film school and then I worked on a bunch of other people’s films. And my first film came out in 2007 and then I made this film”.

Dana: “How did you find the transition from shorts to features?”

Craig: “Well to be honest it was a bit difficult. For making this film, I got sucked into a “Hollywood development deal”- sort of situation, where you sit around talking about making a movie for a really long time and you never actually shoot one and it was very frustrating for me and made me feel like “Why am I letting people tell me how to do this?”

Dana: “Which is very similar to the actual issue of the film…”

Craig (laughing):”Exactly . So that was another challenge that I had to overcome in order to make the film. And I thought that indeed the film might be too dark and creepy and weird, or just boring and flat and not work, and it could hurt my career in some way, so I had to overcome those fears as well”.

ABOUT THE FILMMAKER

Craig was awarded the Breakthrough Director Award at the 2008 Gotham Awards for Great World of Sound, his debut feature as a writer-director which premiered at Sundance in 2007. The film was selected  as one of the Top Ten Independent films of the year by The National Board of Review, and was nominated for Best First Film and Best Supporting Actor in the 2008 Independent Spirit Awards. His new film Compliance played at Sundance and SXSW in early 2012. Craig was also co-producer of David Gordon Green’s seminal indie hit of 2000, George Washington.