Motherland (2023) CPH:DOX Winner Dox Award

March 22nd, 2023
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Hanna Badziaka, Alexander Mihalkovich; Documentary with Swetlana Korzhych; Swe/Nor/Ukraine 2023, 94 min

Belarus has been taking the rap in the media recently for the harsh regime of its dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko, judging by this documentary from Hanna Badziaka and Alexander Mihalkovich, this is not fake news.

The directors followed relatives and victims of “Dedovschina”, a brutal, often deadly initiation ritual imposed by the forces, a regime that was first practised in the army of the old Soviet Union, and is still prevalent in former republics of the former Russian empire.

Two young Belarussian men, Aleksandr (“Sasha”) and Nikita had reservations about joining up. Nikita, who spends his time with his Rave circle mates, had second thoughts about serving, and even mulled over the idea of emigration or opting out on medical grounds, by pretending to be a ‘nutcase’. But his father talks him into serving, believing it will make a man out of his son. Sasha, on the other hand, blindly joins up. To his detriment, we later find out, when his mother Svetlana puts flowers on his grave. Svetlana now spends her time up and down the country trying to find justice for Sasha, and connect with other people whose sons have suffered the same fate. She never accepted the official version of “suicide”, after workers in the morgue, where her son is resting, told her about his physical wounds: bruises on his back and neck.

Sasha was the victim of said “Dedovschina” – which is literally translated as ‘Grandfathers”: old men who pull rank in the army, holding sway over new recruits. But their status will change when today’s victims become tomorrow’s perpetrators, getting their own back for all pain they have suffered in their first year in the barracks. 

A voice-over reads imagined letters from a soldier (actually written by co-director Mihalkovich, edited by Hanna Badziaka), talking about his torture at the hands of the older men, whom he had to pay on a regular basis, into the bargain. The anonymous voice describes a life of hell

Meanwhile Nikita has been released from service and is heavily traumatised. A shadow of his former self he regrets not having fled the country. It is August 2020, and election time in Belarus, and Lukashenko is standing again, having seized power in 1994. Had he stayed in the army, Nikita would have been forced to open fire at his friends who have joined the popular resistance movement, in a bid to keep the dictator from being re-elected. But the police and the military (as well as Vladimir Putin) have a vested interest in making sure Lukashenko stays in power, and many demonstrators are killed in the protests. In one of the letters, the author states “that after being transferred to new barracks, out of the reach of the “Grandfathers”, I enjoy the pleasure of my new powers. It has gone under my skin”.

Nikita’s friends emigrated to the Ukraine after the election, but they went ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’ when Russia invaded the nation. Svetlana continues to rage against the authorities but fights a losing battle. DoP Sirhiej Kanaplianik stays close to the action with a hand held camera, capturing brutal confrontations, particularly the bloody scenes when police and plain-clothes agents join the mass slaughter. AS


Main image: A riot policeman is standing next to the House of Government in Minsk amid mass protests in 2020. Credit: Siarhiej Kanaplianik



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