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(The BAM Cinemfest wrapped up June 28. Hammer to Nail was on the scene and is also wrapping up our coveage with a review of The Russian Woodpecker.)

In 1986 a devastating disaster occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Northern Ukraine, local resident Fedor Alexandrovich was just four years old. Since that time Alexandrovich’s life has been haunted by the events of that day leading his overactive brain to release his experiences through art – plays, films, paintings and more – perched on the thin line between genius and madness. His preoccupation with Chernobyl seems to be tangling with age, leading him to become entrenched in unlocking a conspiracy theory about the nuclear meltdown.

Alexandrovich spends his time desperately connecting the ill fated power plant with a failed spy project whose main mission was to build a massive, “over the horizon” radio tower in which to spy on other countries, a tower whose decaying remnants remain within the contamination zone. The artistic provocateur researches, conducts interviews, employs hidden cameras and explores the physical memories forming both a contextual narrative for the Ukrainian political unrest but also a psychological one of Cold War paranoia, a palpable fear that remains a hovering reality for many.

The Russian Woodpecker is like a filmic diptych. Fedor’s strong artistic expression and personal narrative runs parallel to that of the filmmakers. Their visions smoothly glide alongside one another, even converging at times, to make a beautiful, thriller-like tale of truth: what artifices do we choose to believe? The film is brilliantly executed with hints of Fedor’s manic art, archival news segments, and vivid present day images of the Ukraine seen through moments of deserted peace inside the ruins of Chernobyl offset by the riotous turmoil in the square of Kiev. It deals with huge and scary subjects but it does so with a Hollywood fever and arthouse aesthetic – it feels wildly cinematic.

As the filmmakers are embedded in the story their project becomes difficult, weighing their work against the startling actions taken against them, both as individual artists asking questions and as citizens of a country in the midst of an uprising. The title of the film is taken from a repeated ticking noise picked up on radios during the Cold War, a mysterious signal emanating from the heart of Russia, the “tick tick tick” of what came to be known as the Russian Woodpecker. This enigmatic one-way communication is the perfect symbol for the climate of the region, this film a bold response reminding that creativity is a form of defiance.

Donna K. (@TeamDonnaK

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