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‘Motherland’ review: A powerful portrait of Belarus’ culture of cruelty

The first words of the Belarusian national anthem, sung faithfully at the army graduation ceremony as the song “Motherland” begins, are “We Belarusians are a peaceful people”. It doesn’t take long for you to bite into the sarcasm. The gravelly snow-filled sky is a stark beauty for Siarhiej Kanaplianik photographers, as Hanna Badziaka and Alexander Mihalkovich’s bittersweet film demonstrates something close to the opposite of that ideal: a culture of brutality, thuggery and complicity that is cemented in the Belarusian military, then seeps like hail into the bones of civil society.

Dedovshchina, as some of the abbreviated titles explain, translates to the benign “Grandade Rule”. But it describes a systematic catalog of psychological and physical abuses visited upon new recruits by their longer-serving colleagues, which the Belarusian military establishment, like other former Soviet states, inherited from the Russian military. Most of the time, Dedovshchina It can be described as a particularly violent and degrading form of ritual hazing, designed to break any spirit of independence or rebelliousness of the newcomers. And, realizing that fitting in is the best survival tactic (even at the first graduation party, spectators note that they can’t choose their sons from the lineup: “They all look kinda alike”), they become victims of last season in the next cycle. the perpetrators, before returning to the common people, bringing with them the harsh lessons they learned about being right, and submission to authority is an inevitable fact of life.

But sometimes, as in the case of Svetlana’s son Sasha, deaths do happen. Sasha was found hanged, and his death was classified as suicide, but that did not take into account the bruises and ligament marks that covered the body Svetlana received. In the years that followed, she devoted herself to debunking Dedovshchina and prosecute those responsible for Sasha’s violent end. We follow Svetlana on exuberant visits to other afflicted parents, as they discuss, with heartbreaking candor, the similarity of their cruel, disingenuous, and underhanded treatment by the authorities.

But as difficult as the topic may be, Badziaka and Mihalkovic’s approach is anything but straight-forward reporting. Indeed, with Yngve Leidulv Sætre and Thomas Angell Endresen’s score low in the mix and bits of cryptic voiceover reading letters from a soldier to his mother based on those Mihalkovich wrote back to his country, this is a remarkably quiet and introspective film. And so we also spend time alone with Svetlana, in the house between break-a-brac and the reminder of Sasha’s absence, none more exciting than the young animals of young animals—chicks, kittens, a bleating baby goat—now bestowed upon her maternal instincts.

In parallel, we also meet Nikita, a young man with a loving mohawk and a close-knit circle of party buddies who has just received his draft order and, unlike many of his peers, has decided not to run away or “pull the nut” out of it. He discusses his concerns with his father, who respects his old discipline and direction which he believes training will instill in his son. But as his months of service pass, Nikita has become increasingly estranged from his friends, which is highlighted when they take part in protests following Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko’s 2020 re-election — widely considered illegitimate — and Nikita is one of those. Units were called in to quell the demonstrations. When Nikita finally gets home, he admits that he was completely spoiled by the experience – he didn’t lose his son as irretrievably as Sasha, but he was lost nonetheless.

“Motherland” mourns many losses. Not only the extinguished spark of a youthful life like Sasha’s, the eradicated individuality like Nikita’s experiences, but the slow depletion of the energy it takes to fight an unjust and corrupt system. One devastating moment shows an activist mother reading a letter from the military leadership in which they solemnly state that in the case of her battered and dying son, no crime was committed and no charges will be filed. Whatever you say after that in an undertone is, “True.” But a sigh is exactly the sound of someone losing hope, of that last ray of possibility fading into the darkness.

With war dragging on in neighboring Ukraine, and ominous rumblings that Belarus might be next on Putin’s invasion agenda, there will be louder, sharper and more urgent documents outwardly from this region in the coming year. But few will be as thoughtful as Motherland, valuable precisely because of its relative silence, as if it had temporarily closed its ears to the noise of the present conflict to look inward, at the internal fissures that external enemies might soon seek to exploit. Belarus may not be at war, but as “Motherland” calmly and pathetically demonstrates, this nation of “peaceful people” is not at peace either.


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