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CPH:DOX 2023

Review: Motherland


- Alexander Mihalkovich and Hanna Badziaka's documentary paints a bleak and convincing picture of the violent culture inherent in Belarusian society

Review: Motherland

The second documentary by Ukrainian-Belarusian filmmaker Alexander Mihalkovich and Belarus' Hanna Badziaka, Motherland, is a film of remarkable breadth and depth as it unveils the state-sanctioned and state-inflicted culture of violence in Belarusian society. It has just world-premiered in the main competition of CPH:DOX.

One of the two principal protagonists is the middle-aged Svetlana, whose son died in the army due to dedovshchina, a practice in which soldiers violently abuse new conscripts. When this results in death, it is swept under the rug as suicide. The practice stems from the Soviet army, but the film shows that in the 21st-century Belarusian military, it has reached horrifying proportions both in scale and gravity.

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We first see Svetlana travelling across the country by train to try and gather other parents whose children died the same way, in order to start a class-action lawsuit. From the very beginning, the film has a relentlessly bleak atmosphere, supported by the droning, bubbling and screeching sound design that, at times, becomes melodic or low in volume, but remains ever-present. Long, static shots of people smoking, their reflections in windows under low light, or images of decrepit buildings and factory ruins further deepen this heavy vibe.

What breaks it, to an extent, is the voice-over of a soldier's letters to his mother, which will re-appear throughout the film. It puts us in the army barracks with ease through its impressionistic descriptions but also, at one point, conjures up beautiful, lyrical images that are in stark contrast to the overbearing darkness. As it is first edited to images of Svetlana, we are led to believe these are her son's letters, but we are not sure until their final lines end the film on a bitterly pessimistic note.

There is indeed little reason for optimism. Our second hero is Nikita, whom we first meet at a rave party. He has received his conscription letter and at first starts joking about it with his activist friends. His grandfather, though, seems like an old-school Soviet person, someone you can clearly only call "sir", and he tells Nikita that the army will straighten him out. But the film is nuanced enough to show us that the old man is far from naive about the state of things.

Crucially, as Nikita starts his service in the military town of Pechi, Lukashenko is re-elected in sham elections, and protests erupt. Even if we have seen these violent scenes before, the co-directors have picked the most visceral ones, which are further strengthened by the context. Nikita could easily be sent to shoot his friends, and an earlier sequence showed a group of people gathered around the spot on the road where a policeman in a balaclava had killed a man in broad daylight and calmly left – before any protests had even begun.

Mihalkovich and Badziaka paint an unrelenting picture of a militaristic, heavily patriarchal society riddled with violence and propaganda. Billboards advertise army service, and at Easter, Svetlana is struggling to get a priest to bless her son's grave. Arrested protesters are released having been beaten up, and an official gets into his armoured SUV laconically waving off claims of torture. The staggering lack of accountability has, just like dedovshchina, been inherited from the Soviet era and has mutated through 30 years of tyranny and corruption, so Svetlana and other parents can hope for little from the legal system in this society locked in a vicious circle of trauma perpetuated through generations.

Motherland is a co-production by Sweden's Sisyfos Film Production, Norway's Folk Film and Ukraine's Voka Films. Lightdox has the international rights.

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