Cinema Without Borders: Mother and child-Motherland
In this weekly column, the writer explores the non-Indian films that are making the right noises across the globe. This week, we talk about Motherland
Dedovschina is a Russian word that translates as “reign of grandads”. It refers to an informal ritual in the Soviet army of seniors bullying the young conscripts, presumably to make men of boys. Long after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the brutal, and at times fatal, practice persists to this day in the Republic of Belarus.
Filmmakers Alexander Mihlakovich and Hanna Badziaka bring this institutionalized barbarity to the fore in their documentary Motherland by taking us through the parallel journeys of two individuals: Svetlana Korzhych who is fighting for justice after losing her son lost her son Alexander to Dedovschina and young Nikita confronting the ideas of nationalism, war, and peace on his conscription. Enveloping these two narratives is a larger account of Belarus in a state of violent turmoil in 2020, with mass protests erupting against president Alexander Lukashenko.
Dedicated to Ukrainians and political prisoners of Belarus, the 92-minute co-production of Sweden-Norway-Ukraine bagged the top prize at the prestigious CPH:DOX (Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival) last week. The filmmakers’ intent is to question society’s role in furthering the culture of violence by staying silent and tolerant. The two adopt a gently probing approach as they document Svetlana’s struggles amid loss and grief and Nikita’s dilemmas, anxieties, and conflicts about the future. The camera is intimate but never intrusive, as they get candid, unaware of its presence. It is just as quietly observational when placed in a group of protestors. The violence on the streets, on the other hand, is captured with depth and detail.
There’s an inventive use of the epistolary form. A voiceover runs through the film, reading out letters, which incidentally were written by filmmaker Mihlakovich himself to his mother during his military service. These talk about abuse at the hands of seniors and the ideas of family, memories, home, free will, domination and suppression. You can fathom that the army man is a poet-philosopher as he writes about not shying away from conflicts and the importance of resistance, both morally and physically. Ironically, the last letter has the same poet confessing to enjoying the “pleasures of power” as he now becomes the senior to the new crop of conscripts.
Things come a full circle in a similar manner in every thread. Svetlana makes for an inspiring, stoic and strong presence, lighting a candle at the grave of her son, entreating him to rest in peace. His death had been passed off as suicide, with no explanations offered for the bruises on his back. She is clear-eyed: the army created conditions leading to her child being sent home to her in a coffin. However, towards the end, chasing the priests unsuccessfully to get Alexander’s grave blessed, we see her break down and cry and yet strive hard to get justice for her son, despite the legal machinery being stacked against her.
For Nikita, the moment of reckoning comes in the form of protests where his friends are taking to the streets while he is called to carry out army orders of a crackdown. As the cops and army get aggressive with peaceful people, vandalize vehicles, and break the law and order themselves, Nikita opts out. He won’t be brainwashed.
As the chain of violence and the struggles against it continue, Motherland leaves us with no closures. Only two questions to ponder: “Who are we? What will happen to us and our children?”