3 thriller docs show truth can be stranger than fiction

Ukrainian artist Fedor Alexandrovich investigates the Russian government’s possible role in the Chernobyl disaster in the Sundance favorite "The Russian Woodpecker." Via Film Buff.
Ukrainian artist Fedor Alexandrovich investigates the Russian government’s possible role in the Chernobyl disaster in the Sundance favorite “The Russian Woodpecker.” Via Film Buff.
Sometimes, real-life events that play out amidst a backdrop of political turmoil can lead to some riveting and even absurd moments. They can also make for great cinema that leaves audiences scratching their heads, exclaiming: “Did that really happen in real life?”

Recent filmmakers who are willing and able to capture a slice of these historical events have made such engrossing documentaries that they play like any other thriller you might catch at the multiplex.

One example: “The Russian Woodpecker,” a 2015 Fresno Film Festival selection scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 15 at the historic Tower Theatre. This Sundance hit follows eccentric Ukrainian artist Fedor Alexandrovich, a childhood survivor of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, who has always surmised the truth behind the tragedy as a veiled secret within the former Soviet Union. Once he discovers several truths behind this dark secret, Fedor must decide if telling the truth is worth the risk it may cause when current tensions again spark between Russia and Ukraine.

Several other recent riveting documentaries can hold a grip on you as well, and they may even inspire your own inner conspiracy theorist.

“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”

In a similar vein to Fedor’s stance against the former Soviet Union, this debut documentary by Alison Klayman displays the work and life of Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist who, like the protagonist in “Woodpecker,” is labeled as a dangerous activist in the eyes of his government.

Klayman gained exclusive access to Weiwei’s studio and personal life while working as a journalist in China. Her detailed portrait of Weiwei captures the contemporary artist after his latest blog post and exhibit criticizing China’s censorship and negligent legal system comes under fire. Resulting in his arrest, his Shanghai studio raided by officials and then him being held in secret detention — the international community outcries for his whereabouts and release.

The 2012 Sundance winner shows that the so-called constraints of governmental control during this digital age are no longer as art and politics collide.

“We Steal Secrets”

From Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney — who also directs the 2015 Fresno Film Festival’s closing night film, “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” — this August 2013 Filmworks selection tells the true story of the rise of WikiLeaks, the website that published one of the U.S. government’s largest security breaches in its history. The film expertly documents the repercussions of this new age of digital activism and its effects on the declassification of U.S. intelligence.

Gibney, also known for “Going Clear” and “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” details the work of the website’s controversial founder Julian Assange and his rise on the global stage as one of the most infamous whistleblowers in history.

This rousing account will leave the viewer questioning if Assange is indeed a free speech activist in this digital age or if he’s a narcissistic traitor or, as some critics have claimed, a terrorist.


Following the coattails of the previous pick, this 2014 Oscar winner from filmmaker Laura Poitras details her and investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald’s meeting with a former CIA employee cryptically calling himself Citizenfour.

Citizenfour turns out to be whistleblower Edward Snowden, who first makes contact with them before receiving worldwide attention for his disclosure of classified NSA documents. The documents detail the practices — many illegal — of the U.S. government’s wiretapping and global surveillance of its allies and citizens.

The film is an edge-of-your-seat thriller as it takes you on a ride of one man’s actions that leave a wide wake of international turbulence.

Yvette Mancilla studies multimedia journalism at Fresno State. She currently serves as the Filmworks marketing intern.