With a “Pleasure of Domination”

in 23rd goEast - Festival of Central and Eastern European Film

by Tina Waldeck

Not a harmless cinema project, but an important contemporary piece of evidence: in Motherland, Hanna Badziaka and Alexander Mihalkovich show the consequences of long-term traumatic intimidation in Belarus. The two narrative threads of soldier Nikita and mother Svetlana form the sensitive framework for this documentary, which reveals the suppressed injuries of citizens at the hand of state violence.

“The train has reached its final destination,” announces a deliberately gentle voice. “We Belarusians are friendly people”, is enthusiastically carolled on the podium to brass band music and a hoisted flag. Proud parents are filming passing soldiers and the dissolution of identity in the state apparatus. Nikita reported for this military service in 2020, which aims to use all available means to shape human beings into machines. An off-screen voice gently reads out his letters, in which the soldier talks about the submission to the “grandfathers”, or older generation of command, known as dedovshchina: the traditional harassment of the younger conscripts by the elders that is taken for granted.

Another suicide has been reported within the army, but the surviving dependants are not allowed to photograph the countless bruises on the soldier’s body – a disguised homicide would not be uncommon. Should they band all together and sue the responsible, or is this hopeless? Svetlana is on the train to talk to other parents about this different kind of pain. At the cemetery, she is looking for a priest to bless the fresh grave, but given the long streets lined with coffins, the mother has to wait her turn and is admonished by the older authority to maintain discipline despite the mourning. Faintly, she can be heard crying as the camera tactfully stays behind.

Meanwhile, the next generation is preparing to join the army. While the wheels of propaganda are turning, teenagers are posing in front of the recruitment calls like models for advertisements. One of them looks “like he just came from Auschwitz”, they laugh under the caption “Minsk – heroic city”. And if the given orders are not carried out correctly, the soldiers can be held accountable by any means necessary, one of them explains with a shrug, in a preparation for the inexpressive apathy to come. Additionally, the trains rolling past them, as an image of the smouldering horror with unquestionable parallels, whether the next heroes or victims are inside.

Like a passive-aggressive shadow of humaneness, this affecting documentary illustrates, with many realistic images and analogies, how entire generations’ identities are psychologically and physically anchored in oppressive Belarusian structures of abuse. Nikita’s letters overlay all timelines from within the army and provide a mouthpiece for what is long gone, while Svetlana embodies the still substantial fight to keep empathy alive for individual unjust fates, – in a not yet fully blunted Motherland.

Tina Waldeck
Edited by Birgit Beumers