The Russian Woodpecker – Helen Carey writes:

7 June 2015 – Sheffield Doc/Fest, Showroom Cinema, Sheffield

Sunday 7 June was a gloriously sunny day in Sheffield and the date of YTI’s June social: a trip to see “The Russian Woodpecker” film at international documentary festival Sheffield Doc/Fest. I had been looking forward to this social in particular, as we Sheffielders enjoy welcoming fellow YTI members back to our city, but also because I am a personal fan of the festival, having volunteered at it for the past few years.

Eight of us began the afternoon at around 4 p.m. with a meal at Café Rouge at the Peace Gardens. This venue had been suggested by a YTI member, and it seemed a suitable choice for a group of linguists! We enjoyed dishes such as steak baguette, Croque Madame, risotto, Moules Frites and Demi Poulet, whilst also having the chance to catch up with new and familiar faces. We then made our way over to the Sheffield Tap, the pub at the railway station, for a quick drink with another two YTI members, before making our way over to the Showroom Cinema in time for the film.

I must admit that I’d been sceptical about whether the film would be quite “my thing”, as I know a lot of this year’s Doc/Fest programme has dealt with some pretty deep subject matters, but I can genuinely say that I was gripped by it. This documentary, directed by Chad Garcia, follows Fedor Alexandrovich’s investigation into the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Alexandrovich himself was raised in Ukraine and was only a young child at the time of the disaster. He was one of the children who was separated from his parents and sent away for safety following the disaster, and who is still suffering from the after-effects today.
Alexandrovich is interested in the Duga – a massive radio transmitter that emitted the woodpecker-type sound in the 1980s and from which the film gets its name. The Duga is located next to the nuclear power plant and was designed to interfere with western communications. It becomes clear that in 1986, the Duga was about to be exposed as a failure. After having interviewed various former Soviet officials, historians etc., Alexandrovich claims that the nuclear disaster was a deliberate act arranged by a now deceased Soviet official in order to cover up for the failure of the Duga.

I found the film very thought-provoking, and it encourages audience members to reach their own conclusions about the alleged cover-up. Garcia and Alexandrovich were in Sheffield in person on 7 June to answer audience questions, which added another interesting dimension to the overall experience. Some of the filming had been dangerous to do, given Ukraine’s recent political unrest, so questions were asked about that, as well as about whether the director had felt concerned about radiation levels in present-day Ukraine, whether the documentary had been shown in Russia and whether Alexandrovich currently felt in any danger. Alexandrovich, Chad and other members of the team had also secretly filmed each other at some points during the making of the documentary, so further questions were asked about that too.

Overall, I thought the documentary was a worthy award-winner and a thought-provoking piece. It gave us something to think about and the subtitling/international dimension made it a suitable outing for a group of linguists. Thank you to the organisers of this social and we look forward to welcoming you back to Sheffield, and perhaps even Doc/Fest, again soon!