The very first words in the Belarusian national anthem, which is being sung devoutly at an army graduation ceremony as “Motherland” begins, are “We Belarusians are peaceful people.” It does not take long for the irony to bite. Grave skies heavy with snow frame the stark beauty of Siarhiej Kanaplianik’s camerawork, as Hanna Badziaka and Alexander Mihalkovich’s handsome, bitter film outlines something close to the inverse of that ideal: a culture of brutality, bullying and complicity that is fostered in the Belarusian military, and then seeps like the cold into the very bones of civilian society.
Dedovshchina, as some terse titles explain, translates to the benign-sounding “rule of Grandads.” But it describes a systematic code of psychological and physical abuse visited on new conscripts by their longer-serving colleagues, that the Belarusian military establishment, like that of other former Soviet countries, inherited from the Russian army. Most of the time, dedovshschina can be characterized as a particularly violent and humiliating form of ritual hazing, designed to break any spirit of independence or rebellion in newcomers. And having understood that conformity is their best survival tactic (even at that first graduation ceremony, onlookers remark that they cannot pick their own sons out of the lineup: “They kind of all look the same”), last season’s victims become the next cycle’s perpetrators, before they matriculate back into the general population, carrying with them the harsh lessons they’ve learned about might being right, and submission to authority being an inescapable fact of life.
But sometimes, as in the case of Svetlana’s son Sasha, deaths result. Sasha was found hanged, his death classified as a suicide, but that did not account for the bruises and ligature marks that covered the body that Svetlana received. In the years since, she has dedicated herself to exposing dedovshchina and prosecuting those responsible for Sasha’s violent end. We follow Svetlana on galvanizing visits to other afflicted, grieving parents, as they discuss, with heartbreaking directness, the similarity of their callous, stonewalling, deceitful treatment by the authorities.
But tough though the subject matter is, Badziaka and Mihalkovich’s approach is anything but straightforward reportage. Indeed, with Yngve Leidulv Sætre and Thomas Angell Endresen’s plangent score low in the mix and fragments of a murmured voiceover reading letters from a soldier to his mother that are based on those Mihalkovich wrote to his own, this is a remarkably quiet, introspective film. And so we also spend time with Svetlana alone, at home among the bric-a-brac and reminders of Sasha’s absence, none more moving than the small menagerie of baby animals — chicks, cats, a bleating kid goat — on whom she now lavishes her mothering instincts.
In parallel, we also meet Nikita, a young man with a hipster mohawk and a tight-knit circle of partying buddies who has just received his conscription order and, unlike many of his peers, has decided not to flee or “pull a nutcase” to get out of it. He discusses his fears with his father, who has an old-timer’s respect for the discipline and direction he believes the training will instill in his son. But as the months of his service pass, Nikita becomes increasingly estranged from his friends, which is highlighted when they participate in the protests that follow the 2020 re-election — widely considered illegitimate — of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, and Nikita’s is one of the units called in to suppress the demonstrations. When Nikita finally returns home, he confesses to being wholly messed up by the experience — he is not as irrevocably lost a son as Sasha is, but he is lost nonetheless.
“Motherland” mourns many losses. Not just the extinguished spark of young lives like Sasha’s, and the eradicated individualism such as Nikita experiences, but the slow sapping of the energy it takes to fight an unjust and corrupt system. One devastating moment shows a campaigning mother reading a letter from the military leadership in which they officially state that, in the case of her battered, dead son, no crime was committed and no charges will be brought. All she says afterwards, in a tiny whisper, is “Right.” But it’s a sigh that is exactly the sound of someone losing hope, of that very last thin ray of possibility dissolving into darkness.
With the war in neighboring Ukraine ongoing and ominous rumblings that Belarus might be next on Putin’s invasionary agenda, there will be louder, more visceral and ostensibly more urgent docs coming out of this region in the coming year. But few will be as thoughtful as “Motherland,” which is valuable precisely because of its relative hush, as though it has momentarily blocked its ears to the clamor of the current strife to look inward, at the internal fractures that external enemies might soon seek to exploit. Belarus may not be at war, but as the quietly, elegiacally agonized “Motherland” demonstrates, this nation of “peaceful people” is hardly at peace either.
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