Film and Television Features

Sheffield DocFest 2015 – Part Three

During the later years of the Cold War, radio enthusiasts across the world were tuning their dials towards a mysterious signal. It earned the name the ‘Russian Woodpecker’ due to its repetitive tapping sound, and theories about its purpose ranged from the wild (Soviet mind control) to the mundane (a missile detection system). These days it’s generally believed that the mysteries of the Russian Woodpecker have been solved, but artist Fedor Alexandrovish still feels there are more pieces to the puzzle. Fedor was among the children who had to be evacuated following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and he’s always suspected that the meltdown may have been more than a simple accident. The source of the Woodpecker signal was the immense steel monstrosity, Duga-3, which now lies abandoned in the still radioactive forests near Chernobyl. Could there be a connection between the phantom signal and the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history?

The Russian Woodpecker plays like a shadowy Cold War conspiracy thriller. This is a film so paranoid that not only do the film crew use secret cameras against their targets, they even end up using secret cameras against each other. What is really striking through much of the investigation is the extent to which the Cold War lives on for so many, whether it’s the retired former-Soviet military officials still refusing to disclose long redundant information to the film’s American director, or the intense caution exercised by those who can still vividly recall the murderous power of the state. What really separates the film from other investigative documentaries though is Fedor himself. When Fedor and the film’s director first discussed the project, Fedor’s initial reaction apparently wasn’t to make an investigative film, but instead to film himself naked sailing across a radioactive lake on a raft of mirrors. Fedor certainly isn’t your typical investigative documentary lead, and his wild-eyed unpredictability adds a great deal to The Russian Woodpecker. The film succeeds too due to the wide array of subjects it draws upon. We’ve all seen plenty of footage from the recent political protests in Ukraine, and many of us will have seen images from the eerie radioactive ghost towns around Chernobyl, but to see them weaved together makes for a fascinating experience. The Russian Woodpecker is dense, compelling, and just a little bit mad.


Political unrest in Ukraine also serves as the subject matter for All Things Ablaze, but the film offers a wildly different experience to The Russian Woodpecker’s methodical investigations. If you followed the Ukrainian protests on the news it’s possible you feel like you’ve already seen all of the images of the street level clashes that you need to, but it’s unlikely you’ve ever seen anything with the forceful intensity of All Things Ablaze. The film captures the uprising entirely from a ground-level first person perspective. There are no main characters here, and no attempts at commentary or analysis, just the experience of being there among the noise and chaos. Even with the knowledge you’re watching a recording on a screen, the tremendous energy of these events still carries through. The documentary excels though because it captures not only the explosions and violence, but a huge array of powerful human responses to it. These moments range from the ridiculous, as when we see balaclava-clad protestors taking time out to play on an abandoned circus carousel, to the frightening, such as a blood drenched man on a stretcher begging not to be taken to a hospital where the police will be able to reach him. Perhaps the most powerful moment within the film though is the sequence capturing the destruction of a Communist monument. As the protestors alternate between smashing the statue with sledgehammers and posing for photographs, an elderly man passes through the crowd and hugs the monument tenderly. As the man implores everybody to stop their actions, a rift quickly forms within the turbulent crowd between those who see the man as the redundant and unwanted relic of the old Soviet order, and those who are concerned for the safety of a frail human being in a dangerous situation. It’s a confusing and upsetting moment in a film that is full of them.

Given the fluid nature of music history, it can be curious how rigid people’s understanding of it can become once history has been arranged into a linear narrative. When it comes to who came first, and who influenced who, mainstream music history holds to a fairly established hierarchy. A good music documentary can upset this hierarchy though, shedding light on artists and influential links that rarely receive the credit they’re due. Hustler’s Convention seeks to do this with regards to ‘grandfather of rap’ Lightin’ Rod’s 1973 album of the same name. The album is rarely mentioned outside specialist circles, yet for many of hip hop’s pioneers it remains a widely respected and influential work. It’s a great subject for a film, and one that allows for the exploration of topics such as early rap music’s links with underground political poetry, and the toasting tradition. While there are plenty of hip hop documentaries out there, there are a surprising lack of really great documentaries about the genre’s history, so it’s particularly interesting here to see a historical narrative here that takes the release of 1982’s ‘The Message’ as one of its historical end points, and not its beginning. The film also benefits hugely from contributions by many of the stars of the golden age of hip hop, including Chuck D, Melle Mel and Ice T. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the best contributions come from KRS-One, who I’m beginning to suspect may actually be made from solid charisma. With all of these pieces in place, it’s a bit of a shame then that the film itself doesn’t entirely hold together. This is a solid 90 minute documentary that feels like it would make for a fantastic 60 minute documentary, especially in the film’s more meandering sections. Hustler’s Convention does an admirable job of examining an underexplored area of hip hop history, and will be of great interest to fans of the genre, but sadly in its current form I can’t see it crossing over to win over too many casual viewers.

At first I was a little cautious about seeing Addicted to Sheep, and assumed from its title that it’d be one of those whimsical documentaries about people from different backgrounds taking part in an animal competition, or something to that effect. However, Addicted to Sheep quickly became one of the films of the festival I was hearing most about, and it was eventually selected by DocFest for their ‘hits of the festival’ strand. I was pleasantly surprised to discover then that the film was a greatly more subtle and sensitive work than I’d anticipated. The documentary follows a British farming family as they care for their farm over the course of a year, and in particular their flock of sheep. We’re invited fully into their lives during this time, and the cameras are even present as the family open gifts on Christmas day. Though the filmmakers evidently have a great deal of respect for their participants, the film doesn’t romanticise their lives. This is clearly a tough existence, and we see much of the difficulties they face. It’s also at times a very funny film, with the children in particular (many of whom already seem like miniaturised farmers themselves) stealing many of the film’s best lines. Addicted to Sheep is a film that proves you don’t always need to find the drama in everyday life. Sometimes everyday life is fascinating enough.