CPH:DOX 2023 Review: MOTHERLAND Probes the Neo-Nationalist, Post-Soviet Oppression

Hanna Badziaka and Alexander Mihalkovich uncover Belarusian military abuse in their documentary and show what keeps the authoritarian regime going.

Contributor; Slovakia (@martykudlac)
CPH:DOX 2023 Review: MOTHERLAND Probes the Neo-Nationalist, Post-Soviet Oppression

Belarusian filmmakers Alexander Mihalkovich and Hanna Badziaka descend into the country's underbelly of military culture in their latest work, Motherland.

The documentary doubles as an inquiry into the traumatic, decades-old tradition of violent bullying among Belarusian military conscripts. The mechanism proved to be a tried and tested tool for discipline-forging and manipulation. Yet it came at the cost of several young lives.

The film follows Svetlana as she grapples with the loss of her son, who was found hanged on base two years prior. She seeks justice by prying the authorities to properly investigate the death, which she is certain was caused by severe bullying.

Svetlana meets parents with similar fate, exposing the mechanisms of control that go unchecked. While it seems that she is battling not only bureaucratic windmills, her seemingly futile endeavor further unveils the functions of a totalitarian state.

As a counterpoint to Svetlana, a young conscript named Nikita is about the embark on his compulsory military duty and experience the insidious world of post-Soviet Belarus on his own skin.

The practice that might have been originally devised to turn boys into men instead perpetuates generational trauma deeply ingrained in the nation's contemporary culture. And society at large appears to know about it and tolerate it.


Nikita and Svetlana's poignant narratives mirror the burgeoning rage on the streets, as the state-sanctioned violence morphs into the government's primary tool to instill fear and maintain domination over its citizens.

However, Badziaka and Mihalkovich utilizes the protagonists as a representative of their generations, mothers and sons, to depict a disturbing portrait of present-day Belarus and the modus operandi of an authoritarian state. Motherland serves as an examination of a troubled nation grappling with its own dark history and the devastating repercussions of its unchecked power.

The investigation unfolds against the backdrop of the disputed re-election of dictator-president and Putin sympathizer, Aleksandr Lukashenko, the protests that erupt in the streets in the aftermath,  and the police suppression of the riots.

A distinct documentary approach defines Nikita and Svetlana's narrative; Badziaka and Mihalkovich remain silent observers in both cases. Svetlana's part follows a single thread to unveil her son's murderers, and has more of an investigative nature.


On the other hand, Nikita serves as a first-hand witness, relaying almost in real time what is happening in the barracks. Yet the military bullying is just a symptom of a bigger diagnosis.

They both offer bleak testimony of a neo-nationalist post-Soviet society and how violence and brutality assure grip over the nation. Badziaka and Mihalkovich managed to capture the clashes of a young generation that is growing discontent with the state and the army consisting of young conscripts who are used as instruments of the oppression.

The militarization of youth appears as one of the important ingredients as to how authoritarian states are kept alive. Yet the documentary manages to find the spot and the moment where and when the fabric of a regime is starting to tear off.

Motherland netted the top prize DOX:AWARD at the festival.

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Alexander MihalkovichCPH:DOX 2023Hanna BadziakaMotherland

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