By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Sep 23, 2015 at 4:56 PM

When South Milwaukee native Chad Gracia began researching the huge defunct Cold War antenna just outside of Chernobyl – nicknamed the Russian Woodpecker for its constant ominous clicking sound – he didn’t have big plans for the final product. He planned to dig around a bit, interview a few important individuals and put together a five-minute YouTube video. Nothing major. Nothing serious. Just killing time during a long week.

The story and the man he found, however, had other plans.

What was just a small project grew into a feature length documentary, one that sent he and his Ukrainian star/lead investigator Fedor Alexandrovich into a state of paranoia, landed him treacherously close to the Ukrainian-Russian revolution, got his cinematographer shot – and, in the end, won the grand jury prize in the World Cinema - Documentary category at this past winter’s Sundance Film Festival. No small feat for what started as a small project from a first-time filmmaker – unless you count the short reenactment of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" called "South Milwaukee Jones" he filmed when he was 15.

Both Gracia, Alexandrovich and "The Russian Woodpecker" arrive in Milwaukee this weekend for the start of the Milwaukee Film Festival, with two screenings set for the opening few days. Before Gracia’s doc makes its hometown debut, OnMilwaukee got to chat with the filmmaker about finding the story, the state of documentaries and whether or not you should believe his star’s conspiracy theories – and if that even matters.

OnMilwaukee: How did you come across this story, between Fedor and The Russian Woodpecker and the Russia-Ukraine conflict?

Chad Gracia: I was in Kiev working on a theater production, a small play based on "Anna Karenina," and Fedor was our production designer. Very quickly after we began working on the play, he started talking about The Russian Woodpecker. Any chance he got, he would pull me aside and say I had to see this Russian Woodpecker. I didn’t really know what he was talking about; my Russian’s not perfect, and I thought he wanted me to go to a zoo or an aviary.

Eventually, I Googled it and discovered The Russian Woodpecker was this signal that had been bombarding air waves at the end of the Cold War. A lot of Americans thought it might be a mind-control device or that it might be impacting the weather in the U.S., that it was some kind of weapon. I realized that nobody really followed up on it. It turned on July 4, 1976 and then it went silent about seven or eight years later.

I thought I’d do a short, five-minute piece. That was my original plan, and that plan got jettisoned as we discovered how enormous the radar was that was creating the sound, its location – right next to the Chernobyl power plant – and a lot of mystery and classified information surrounding the antenna, which then created its own conspiracy theory that was larger than any original conspiracy theory I was planning on debunking.

OnMilwaukee: What was it about Fedor’s personality that made him such an interesting subject and lynchpin for your documentary?

Gracia: There’s something about him as a true artist and a true visionary, and he’s not afraid to pose insane ideas. He’s not afraid to look like a mad man. He’s not afraid to go into the radioactive zone and poke around looking for the truth.

Some people think of him as a Don Quixote, as a deluded, irradiated, wounded child. He was four years old when Chernobyl happened, and he was sent to an orphanage for protection to get away from the radiation – but he was nevertheless radiated and suffered a lot from that psychologically and physically. Others think of him as a real detective, as a sort of Snowden type.

But for me, more interesting is just the psychological journey of Fedor, trying to come to grips with what happened at Chernobyl and what it tells us about the Soviet Union, how it structured its society and the way the government treated its people. And more importantly, the way these ghosts of the Soviet Union are still alive, in Ukraine and in Russia. And Fedor is battling them.

OnMilwaukee: One of the most notable aspects of the documentary are these dream-like, almost surreal sequences. How did you decide to incorporate those into the film – which, to many people, isn’t expected from a documentary?

Gracia: When I showed up with the borrowed camera and laid out my plan to Fedor, the plan was to interview the engineers, scientists and colonels who operated this giant antennae, and that’s how we’ll find the truth, that’s how we’ll answer the questions and debunk the myths about what the Russian Woodpecker was.

Fedor looked at me with sort of pity and said, "Chad, we will never find the truth in this manner. No one here will tell us the truth. The only way to find the truth is to reenact the dreams I’ve been having, and the first dream is me naked on a raft built of mirrors, sailing across a radioactive sea with a torch. If we reenact these dreams, I think we will get closer to the truth."

And I thought that was an insane idea, but Fedor refused to do the interviews unless I helped him with his journey. I’m a very scientific person, a skeptic by nature, but I thought I’ll take a chance. So we allowed Fedor to reenact his dreams, and he agreed to interview the scientists.

OnMilwaukee: It was two separate ideals meshing together to hopefully find a greater truth in this whole matter.

Gracia: It was a surprise, and up until the very end – almost the final cut – I wasn’t sure it would fit in at all. But I think that it does – and that it serves another purpose, and that is to alert the viewer that this is not a traditional investigation. This is a dream investigation.

There’s a real cover-up at the heart of Chernobyl, as we discovered through the course of making the film. There are real holes in our knowledge. There are people that led the investigation that are convinced that there was a crime committed, and that the people sent to prison weren’t the guilty parties. Whether the details of Fedor’s theory are correct or not is less important to me than other questions that the film explores, like why do conspiracy theories thrive in a society that’s been traumatized. Why are people so willing to fear and believe what are outlandish theories? Fedor’s response is they live in a land where the most outlandish things that you could imagine, the most horrific crimes you could imagine, are true and have happened. His theory, in that context, is actually saner than the government’s official response – which is clearly false.

OnMilwaukee: I was just about to ask: How much do you want to audience to buy into the conspiracies discussed in "The Russian Woodpecker"? It reminds me a bit of "Room 237," which caused debate about the validity of its theories and whether that’s even what it cares about.

Gracia: My hope for the film is that people see this as a psychological journey of Fedor Alexandrovich, an irradiated painter who’s trying to come to grips with what the Soviet Union has done to him and his family – not only in the past but in the present. Fedor was threatened by the secret police during his investigation, so this isn’t something just theoretical for him. This is something very real. So my primary goal was to provide a true portrait of a man coming to grips with a tragedy that happened to him in his childhood.

Now, of course, at the heart of the film is an enormous accusation – that Chernobyl was not only the biggest accident, but one of the biggest crimes of the 20th century – and clearly I thought very hard about how I can present this information in a way that’s respectful to the truth and to Fedor. No one’s ever made the connection, but I think "Room 237" is a glorious film, and I think it’s a good comparison.

For me, it would be interesting – and I hope people will – follow up on some of Fedor’s discoveries and try to see if this conspiracy theory holds water or not. I think that would be valuable. But regardless of the answer to the question, I think that what the film tells us about the troubles that Ukraine is currently facing and the strength of these ghosts of the Soviet Union, that remains relevant no matter where you stand on the central question of the film. (Cinematographer) Artem articulates that at the very beginning, saying "Half of my friends think that Fedor is an idiot; the other half thinks he’s a genius." And every audience has to decide for themselves. That’s the central puzzle that the film poses.

OnMilwaukee: And you try to balance that puzzle out?

Gracia: I tried to put evidence on both sides of the film. We found tons of evidence that there is a massive conspiracy. Tons. There’s a ton that’s not in the film but are in the bonus features on iTunes. And there’s also tons of evidence that Fedor is a mad man, that he’s an absolute, deluded, insane Don Quixote. What is the truth?

That’s one of the things I learned: In that part of the world, the truth is something that’s almost impossible to find. When you for decades in a place that’s Orwellian, in a place where, right after the Chernobyl catastrophe, the first announcement was that all the smoke and fire was routine steam exhaust cleaning, and people thought it was interesting and got a closer look, many of those people died because of this bald lie that came from the government. When the government finally did issue warnings, the health administrator’s comments were so heavily edited, the news report was just so full of jump cuts, that it terrified people.

So when you live in a society where everything that’s told to you is a lie and people die, those are the questions and issues that transcend the conspiracy. Fedor was asked this yesterday, and he said before every trial, every crime that’s brought before a trial is a conspiracy theory. It’s a theory that the prosecutor, the police and the defendant have, and it’s only when a "conspiracy theory" goes through a formal trial and is judged by a jury of peers that we can say that the theory was true or false. Fedor is just asking for a real trial, for history to judge the Chernobyl tragedy fairly. And only then will the conspiracy theory either be killed or embraced.

OnMilwaukee: Do you have any upcoming projects? Are you sticking with documentary or going back to theater?

Gracia: I love the documentary form, I’ve discovered, especially because it’s going through this renaissance of creativity. When I was growing up, documentaries were just kind of dull; now, some of the most exciting stuff is coming out of the documentary world. So I’m addicted now; I’ve got the bug, and I’m going to start the second act of my life as a documentary filmmaker.

I’d like to make a trilogy of films about the future of what it means to be human. I think in the next few generations, we’re going to go through a more radical transformation in the definition of humanity in the sense of what a human being is than we’ve ever gone through in all of our million years of evolution. The first place we’re going to start is cloning and cloning technology, specifically through the symbol of the resurrection of the woolly mammoth, which is a project going on right now supported by Putin in Russia. The second film will take a look at artificial intelligence and cybernetics and how that’s changing our definition of what it means to be homo sapiens. As we become more and more integrated into technology, whether it’s artificial prosthetics or brain-machine interfaces, I think all these things are going to just totally upend not only our civilization, the world we live in, but also the definition of what it means to be a human being.

So that’ll probably keep me busy for the next 10 years, and we’ll see what’s next.

"The Russian Woodpecker" has two showings during the Milwaukee Film Festival, one on Friday, Sept. 25 at 5:30 p.m. at the Oriental Theatre and another on Sunday, Sept. 27 at 4 p.m. at the Avalon Theater. Writer-director Chad Gracia and Fedor Alexandrovich are expected to be in attendance. 

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.