Monday, 13 June 2016

Burnlaw and the Russian Woodpecker

This year's Losing the Plot festival finished on an adrenalin high. We watched the Russian Woodpecker, a film I had been urged to watch by friends who'd caught it in Orkney. They told me it was about a Ukrainian artist who believed he had traced the cause of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. His film was to claim that a Soviet-era apparatchik had triggered the meltdown as a way to cover up a different fuck-up. Which sounds implausible, and I went into the screening with a healthy scepticism to conspiracy stories.

I was not prepared for how gripping and entertaining and powerful the film was: you should go see it. It knew it was a film, did not waste your time or treat you as stupid, and it was not afraid to jump past the inbetween parts and tell you each key episode of the tale as it unravelled : the artist's face as he runs through the gamut of emotions from suspicion to discovery to elation at finding theories confirmed, is in itself a joy to behold. He comes across as something of an idiot-savant, bumbling and awkward and beyond what the likes of, say Jon Ronson/Russell Brand/Ai Weiwei would ever manage: he comes across as genuine, and here in front of you now, revealed. A back-story into his life, with comments from his family about his particular character, all worked well to reassure us that this film was telling us a true tale. By this I mean not that the neat conspiracy tale need be true, but that this was a film about a character with his emotions and thoughts upfront and visible, pursuing a righteous investigation. We were gripped, we were bonded with his character, we laughed at him and we were drawn into the investigation as it proceeded from interview to interview, from secret-filming to site-visit to fearful discussions of whether to proceed.

The content of his investigation is not what was most powerful. I remain doubtful that such a huge event can really be traced to a few individuals' fully-conscious decisions, but the effort of his and the team's research and confrontation with the past is massively valuable nonetheless. He, Fedor Alexandrovich, is a sort of contemporary performance artist. I don't quite have the right terminology to describe it, but there is a scattering of really bold and impressive avant-garde artists across Russia, Ukraine and other old Eastern bloc countries that does not have a counterpart in the West. The most famous now are Pussy Riot, but I am thinking also of incidents like the man nailing his genitals to the railings at Red Square, and other deliberately upsetting, disruptive, shocking acts that are mostly-unknown to us. I used to read an online journal by some from that culture, but have lost touch with it and I would be grateful if you could direct me to other accounts. Pussy Riot in the West were easy, lazy to support : in context in Russia they were genuine and fucking awesome activists. Their reportage of the Russian prison system was done not for ego or celebrity, but on behalf of all those inside, all those affected. In the same way, this film was about all those affected by Chernobyl. An avant garde art scene that cares about 'stuff'? - completely inspiring.

Thus far thus powerful. The imagery and the development of story built up to the Maidan protests and toppling of government in Ukraine. And then the third act of the film started and it peaked our emotional responses to the film and built to its sort-of climax and finished sharply. No one's mind was able to wander off-point for even a moment. Great film. But now I was troubled.

The credits rolled, the audience sat quietly, and as our host Christo opened the blinds and opened up an invitation to talk about the film, I think we were all a bit wobbly: my usual conflict at those periods, just after a film that has affected me, is that I do not want to rush into commentary immediately. I've been known to hurry out of a screening before the noise dims, ahead of others, because their anodyne comments can ruin the feeling that I am wanting to take some time to process. In this case, I spoke first because, selfishly, I wanted to say my piece before someone else infected it with theirs! And then others spoke, and it was good because it felt like we were all at least equally impacted upon emotionally. Politics, truth, rawness, film-making and history were covered in the discussion. We wouldn't have time to reach, or attempt to reach, any definitive commentary or consensus, but it was one of those rare post-film discussions (for me), that do help to ease the transition from being immersed in the film to walking away afterwards with 'the effect' or 'the review' stored away in your head. I'd like to thank the people there for creating that space where it was not just me dealing with my thoughts, but us together, rattled, working things out a bit.

The final main sequence of the film has the protagonist taking the stage during the street protests of Ukraine's overthrow of the old regime. And he spoke, still truthfully, still authentically, about what he had discovered and what it meant. But now he was on a stage, and he was speaking about Ukraine, and about Russia. And in that crowd, of inspiring rebels who fought and died to create what they saw as a better world, were a huge number of different thoughts and possibilities. Some from my own political tradition, some liberal, some pro-Europe, some out-and-out neo-Nazi. I don't claim to know where Ukraine is now, it confuses me, but I do know it is an uneasy state of governance. Neonazis in government, even if not in sole power, is perhaps the scariest politics that any of us could describe. And here was our hero, the idiot-savant investigator, who mixed earnestness and naivete with determination and fear, who had turned this into a redemptive search that revealed a lot of the evil done by those in power. Standing on stage, talking of nations, with the flags of country A against country B, and the squads of streetfighters training their tactics against the riot police around him. What I called, inaccurately, the inspiring and disruptive avant-garde scene of Russia/Ukraine/beyond, had shifted context from individuals-versus-system, into a situation of individuals-absorbing-into-nationalism. This I found, and do find deeply troubling. Was this the moment that that avant-garde movement was turned from something that championed individual experience and disrupted the established processes of power, into something corralled into bolstering just such processes of power: the nationalism of New Europe>

The film finished on Sunday and today is Monday morning in the office before I start work. This is not a finished review, but I have felt compelled to write it - to write something - because of the unease left by this remarkable and very very watchable film.

ps. The Russians are coming to get you.