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CANNES 2023 Un Certain Regard

Zoljargal Purevdash • Director of If Only I Could Hibernate

“All the pain is being caused by men, but with education, we can fight against that”


- CANNES 2023: The first feature by the Mongolian director focuses on the difficult living conditions in the yurt district of Ulaanbaatar

Zoljargal Purevdash  • Director of If Only I Could Hibernate

Zoljargal Purevdash's impressive and very touching drama If Only I Could Hibernate [+see also:
film review
interview: Zoljargal Purevdash
film profile
celebrated its world premiere in the Un Certain Regard section of this year's Cannes Film Festival. We met up with the director of this international co-production between Mongolia, France, Switzerland and Qatar, and asked her about the background that inspired her to write the script.

Cineuropa: Why did you want to tell this story?
Zoljargal Purevdash:
In the yurt district, there is no running water and no heating system. It has expanded very fast in the last 20 years and is still growing owing to the migration of nomads to the city. Half of the citizens of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, live there, on approximately 60% of the city's surface. Heating is achieved by burning coal, and this is one of the reasons why the city is one of the most polluted in the world. This became a big issue in 2006, when documents were published about the impact that this was having on people's health. Demonstrations were held against the pollution and against heating with coal, and the people from the yurt district were held responsible. This attitude was very hard for me to bear. It made me very sad and offended me. Nobody is intentionally burning coal to poison others; people are only trying to survive, since they can't afford electric heaters. The protesters against the yurt district didn't try to understand. I was surprised by that, surprised by how little people knew about the reality of the people living there. With this film, I wanted to show that this polluted air we are breathing is actually us breathing the poverty of our brothers and sisters. And that to get to the core of the problem, we need a common strategy.

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What is your personal relationship with the yurt district?
My mother and I moved there after my parents' divorce, when I was 14 years old. My mother has a corner shop there, which enabled us to have a close relationship with the inhabitants, who came by regularly and shared their stories with us. 22% of the population lives in poverty. To install electricity and use it is too expensive for them. As a teenager, I hated the district, but eventually, I became very attached to it. I want to support my community against the people who are blaming the poor.

Is the protagonist of the film your alter ego?
I see myself in this 15-year-old, very arrogant and stubborn boy, yes. I gave him my own dreams. I didn't know what I wanted to do for a long time: I wanted to leave, then I started digging deeper and finally found that education was the way forward. I was good at physics and maths, and I went to a good secondary school. There, they offered some interesting clubs that nurtured the kids’ talents. I got into the dramatic arts and left physics behind. I always loved to watch films, but I never dared to think of myself as a filmmaker. Later, I got a full-rate scholarship for filming in Japan. When I saw that all the scripts I was writing were set in Mongolia, it was clear to me that I would come back to work here.

Why did you choose a boy as the protagonist?
If the protagonist had been a girl, it would have needed to tell a different story. The reality for girls is different, as it’s even more difficult for them to get by on their own. It's hard to go out at night, for example. A whole generation of boys has given up on their education for their sisters, because they have to work to support their family. It's happening again and again, and this has huge consequences in the long term. These men without advanced skills end up stricken by poverty when they are old. In Mongolia, we need to fight for education for boys, too. In our case, it’s the boys’ empowerment we should be promoting, since it inevitably leads to the girls’ empowerment. All the pain is being caused by men, but with education, we can fight against that.

How did you find your protagonists?
I cast the kids in the district. They are all first-time actors. I knew they had to be very close to the story of the film in order to be able to commit to it. As for the main character, I needed someone with a lot of energy, someone who had this drive and this hope for a better future. The kids took their roles very seriously. They felt that the issues were very close to their hearts and were proud to be taken seriously.

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