The Disjunctive Documentary

Documentaries that switch tone or mode half-way through.

Russian Woodpecker
Chad Gracia, 2015
Genre: Issue film/Character-driven documentary

Temperamentally, I’m not inclined toward conspiracy documentaries. So I had similar reservations that critic Mike D’Angelo did of The Russian Woodpecker, who gives a caustic eye to the film’s lauding of flimsy evidence in service of a gigantic claim. It’s understandable (even admirable) that the film would juxtapose exposé documentary tropes with performative shots featuring artist Fedor Alexandrovich as a way of bolstering each other’s power, but the strategy has its drawbacks, too.

But I’d disagree that the film is “only entertainment” or that the final turn to the Euromaidan protests is a deflection from the main point of the film. First, like many documentaries, Russian Woodpecker interweaves a number of motifs, some of which are useful. Regardless of the conspiracy material, the “Russian woodpecker” of the title (the Duga radar) is a fascinating subject. So, too, the film’s theme emphasizes the continuity of Soviet politics and political mentality, so the reactions that Alexandrovich gets from old-guard Russians is very much part of the national politics of the latter part of the film.

There is a disjunction between the first part of the film, focused on Chernobyl and Alexandrovich’s conspiracy theory about Duga, and the final part, focused on Euromaidan. But this just reflects a bigger disjunction, between a documentary organized around a performative character-figure (like Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock) and one that’s truly a character-driven structure organized around Alexandrovich’s personal dilemma.

The editing of the film manages this disjunction quite well, along with a complex amount of exposition. I’m curious why some films are able to be disjunctive while having a unified sense of purpose and aesthetic effect – at least I find one here, but d’Angelo’s review suggests others don’t. Other examples like The Overnighters comes to mind. Other examples (like Rovinelli’s Empathy) to my mind do not work as well, since the tonal shift is too great. Whatever I think of them, these switches are common in documentaries because events happen in the course of making a film – social actors change or withdraw from their project, hypotheses don’t pan out. Documentarists must make the best of frustrated projects and refashioned them into something workable.

One reply on “ The Disjunctive Documentary ”
  1. You hit the nail on the head – finding tonal balance and weaving together five disparate stories was the biggest challenge in editing this film. By keeping focus on fedor’s mental state throughout the film (with conspiratorial fears of russia always in the background), I tried to present a unified portrait of a man and a society struggling to purge itself of a toxic past. Music, sound and graphic design, and other editing strategies also helped unify the various storylines.

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