Sweden, Ukraine, Norway
When young Nikita reports for compulsory military duty in 2020, he enters a generations- old tradition that hides a deadly secret in post-Soviet Belarus: dedovshchina, the practice of violent abuse and bullying that supposedly turns boys into men but which has instead created generational trauma deeply embedded in the country’s present-day culture and identity.
Svetlana lives with this traumatic reality every day– her son was found hanged on base two years earlier as a result of dedovshchina, and a veil of secrecy continues to conceal his murderers. In this country where sons are disposable, and the instruments of control are out of hand, mothers emerge as inexhaustible fighters confronting the status quo.
Nikita and Svetlana’s stories also frame a rage in the streets against the state-led violence, rooted in dedovshchina, that has become the very mechanism of fear the government uses to control its populace. Badziaka and Mihalkovich capture a snapshot of a troubled, modern-day Belarus through the real-life experiences of mothers and new conscripts, overlaid with the raw voices of those who have gone before them, taken from their private letters home.
The phenomenon of “dedovshchina” (a variety of subordinating or humiliating compulsory activities undertaken by new recruits, leaving them with serious psychopathology for their lifetime) has roots in the traditions of the Soviet Army, implemented by recruited ex-convicts who brought criminal rules to bear in the military system.
In 2016, according to the official statistics, 1000 soldiers died in former Soviet countries in peacetime: 16 of them from the Belarusian army. Most of the cases were officially presented as suicides. Men who were both victims of violence and practiced it in the army return deeply traumatized and extend violence to other spheres of life, mainly to their family.
Moreover, the violence in the authoritarian society is generally rooted in the violence in the military service, which is obligatory for the majority of male population of post-soviet countries. That leads to massive tolerance towards the violence in our societies.
Men who return from the army often cannot find themselves in civil life, finding jobs in militarized structures, like security services or the police. The political crisis that started in Belarus in August 2020 showed the relevance of our topic in wider context: violence that originates behind the doors of military units flooded out onto the streets and was used by the authoritarian government to suppress peaceful protests.
The country saw an unprecedented outbreak of violence by security forces, including shooting at unarmed demonstrators (some of whom were killed), arresting thousands of people, and mass beatings and tortures of detainees. The tortures and humiliations used against protesters were similar to the violent practices inside the army. While the brutal repressions in Belarus continue, the results of the violent military system are visible in much more shocking and enormous extent during the Russian invasion into Ukraine with the terrifying war crimes including bombing civil targets, mass killing of civil population, gang rapes, tortures, etc.
One of the reasons the invasion of Russia became possible with the use of Belarusian territory, was the defeat of Belarusian protests. Belarus, being independent on paper, remained the satellite of Russia and this situation was internationally accepted.
What we question is the responsibility of our society that stays mostly silent and tolerates the culture of violence. Although everyone knows about the violence and hazing in the army, the tragic cases that ended in death were hidden by the military; the families of the deceased were afraid to speak up. The case of Sasha, who was found hanged in the army, became public for the first time in Belarus thanks to his mother, Svetlana’s, efforts. It had a huge effect - immediately after, other mothers also tried to speak publicly about the deaths of their sons in the army. But during the trial on Sasha’s case, we were struck by how his fellow soldiers justified the commanders’ and old-timers’ hazing and considered this a normal practice.
However, we can see how society and its perception of the army, violence and hazing has moved towards change, motivated by Svetlana’s efforts and ended up with the mass protests.
Our film explores the violence in the army and in the society, the social norms that are behind it, and their transformation. The film also confronts the concepts of responsibility, fear, loss, and sorrow as we are searching for the starting point of the cycle of violence.
While it’s common to talk about the consequences of violence, we are focusing on the causes. We'd like to emphasize once again that we are sharing the idea of the responsibility of the society and the individual. During our journey to the roots of violence we are aiming to stay sober and avoid any justification of the army or soldiers that are implementing brutal practices. We believe that the film will make an essential input in changing the popular attitude towards the culture of violence.
Cast & Crew
Directed by: Hanna Badziaka, Alexander Mihalkovich
Written by: Hanna Badziaka, Alexander Mihalkovich
Main Producer: Mario Adamson, Ashley J. Smith, Alexander Mihalkovich, Anita Norfolk
Cinematography: Siarhiej Kanaplianik
Editing: Katiia Vushnya, Jakub Bastkowski, Jerzy Poniatowski
Original Score: Yngve Leidulv Sætre, Thomas Angell Endresen
Sound: Yngve Leidulv Sætre, Thomas Angell Endresen
Nominations and Awards
- Documentary Selection 2023