Skip to main content

“As Foreign Filmmakers, You Need to Be Let In”: Kristoffer Juel Poulsen and Christian Als Discuss ‘Daughter of Genghis’

By Amarsanaa Battulga

Photograph of a figure bundled in winter clothes in front of a giant statue.

Daughter of Genghis. Courtesy of CPH:DOX

Filmed in Mongolia for over seven years, Daughter of Genghis follows Gerel, a 33-year-old loving single mother by day and a balaclava-wearing leader of a neo-nationalist gang by night. The tension between these two identities takes center stage in the debut feature of Danish photojournalists-turned-filmmakers Kristoffer Juel Poulsen and Christian Als. The film is both engaging as a portrayal Gerel’s troubling quest to protect, in her own words, “Mongol women, Mongol children, Mongol genes,” and moving in capturing her changing relationship with her son, Temuulen, who literally grows up in front of our eyes.

After the film’s world premiere at CPH:DOX in March and ahead of its international premiere at Hot Docs on April 29, Documentary talked via video call with Poulsen and Als about how they got access to the xenophobic underworld of Mongolia, Gerel’s role in shaping the film, and their transition from photojournalism to documentary filmmaking. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


DOCUMENTARY: What led you to Mongolia and, specifically, to Gerel?

KRISTOFFER JUEL POULSEN: We were quite interested in the rise in nationalism globally. In Mongolia, there were these nationalist groups that were really popular because they were fighting Chinese mining corporations and mining in general. This was quite interesting for us and we wanted to try to understand what’s happening and what’s driving these people. [Popular and male-dominated] groups like Tsagaan Khas and Dayar Mongol were the initial reasons that we went there. But then we met with Gerel, who had just parted ways with them, and found that her presence, views on nationalism, and [understanding of] what needs to be done were a bit deeper than some of these guys from the other groups.

CHRISTIAN ALS: When we met Gerel, she had just started this women’s NGO, like a girl gang, if you will, and explained why she thought that women in Mongolia had a big role in the past. The men were always out fighting and the women were the ones that took care of the household and the kids. She explained to us her firm belief that, if Mongolia was to be straightened up or have a future again, it would be through the mother role. Also, her being a mother was very interesting for us because we felt that there was maybe a more personal story with her. 

D: In the film, we see Gerel’s nationalist gang raiding hotels, having meetings, and even working with the police for one of those raids—all for their cause for nationalism and protecting Mongolia’s sovereignty. How did you get access, especially as foreigners, to this xenophobic as well as legally and morally very gray underworld of Mongolia? 

CA: Of course, as filmmakers coming from Denmark to an exotic place like Mongolia, you need to be let in. You need someone who trusts you and will give you access. Otherwise, we as filmmakers will not be able to do anything other than filming in the street or something very superficial. Gerel was our entry point, so we had to build up trust between us first. I think that she saw that we were very honest. We showed up and were very open-minded and not judgmental. You have to also understand that she had started her own NGO just four months prior to our visit, so she was interested in getting her NGO seen. Of course, we found out later that she had not trusted us entirely, but her seeing us coming back again and again, and being very genuine about our purpose with this film, I think, made her open up more to us. 

KJP: It’s not that we necessarily agree with Gerel’s worldviews, but we find it really important to keep on paying interest to what each other thinks. We spent a lot of time with Gerel, not just filming but just talking and asking each other questions.

D: I’m also interested to hear about how you collaborated with Gerel. You can hear her voiceover narration in certain parts of the film. How did she participate in shaping the film?

KJP: It’s not that she has any say in which direction the film should take, but she understood completely what kind of film she was participating in and that was really important for us. We spent a lot of time talking with her about what we understood and how we see her life, but also what story we would like to build up. We would ask, “We want to boil this storyline down, so could we write it like this?” And she would say, “It makes sense, but let me try and adjust a little, so that it fits the truth more.”

CA: We did a lot of interviews through the years, but we ended up using it mostly as sound, and not as a talking head. So, there was a lot of, “Can we talk about this again? Because we listened to this seven-hour interview from the last trip and that has left us with a whole bunch of other questions.” So, on the next trip, we sit down with Gerel and have another interview, and of course you record everything, and then you can maybe use something from it.

D: What I really liked about the film was how Gerel’s character arc is so complete and how the second half of the film shifts from the political to the personal.

CA: What I’m very proud of about the film is that it is so universal in many of the emotional aspects. It shows how a nationalist thinks and feels and that was what we set out to do. But we made a film that also has a lot of other things, such as work-life balance and parenting.

KJP: We hope that the film will hopefully give some perspectives on nationalism. But also I think it ended up being a film about changes, from hate to love or acceptance. This is also a big part of the reactions we got from audiences—that they actually see a person changing within this quite a short timeframe. I think this is quite unique and hopefully inspiring. It’s also interesting that you can make a movie about a nationalist living in Mongolia and people in Denmark and other parts of the world can relate to her and be very touched by it. 

D: How did your background in photojournalism influence the making of Daughter of Genghis? What drew you to documentary filmmaking and how has this transition been like so far? 

KJP: Oh, that’s a big question. We are still using all of the skills from our photojournalism background to just jump into an environment immediately and gain trust. But we’ve also developed a lot over the years. Documentary filmmaking is not our starting point, so it’s difficult to say how it would’ve been otherwise.

CA: We have heard from a lot of people in the film industry that they really like our film and the way we film. They felt  this rawness and emotional feel to the imagery. But for us, it’s just how we film. We never sat down and had a discussion, “How are we going to film this? Are we going to use the tripod? Are we going to use this kind of focal length?” No, for us, it was just a matter of documenting the story. I think that is very important, because as a photojournalist, you normally don’t have much time to capture that one photo or series of photos. Maybe you go to cover a war in Gaza, and you’re there for 10 days and the newspaper or the magazine expects at least 50 good photos. You go somewhere very quickly and then you just deliver. What I’m trying to say is that in photojournalism, you often make a body of work that says, “This is how it is right now.” But in film, you invest more time and see the main character’s development and journey. And I think that’s the beauty of making a film instead of still images.

D: What are your future plans? Are you already working on another documentary, do you have an idea for one, or maybe even, do you think you will continue making documentaries?

KJP: There’s still a lot of work to be done with Daughter of Genghis. Even though it’s finished, it’s traveling to quite a lot of festivals and that needs a lot of energy and we really enjoy this process. Who knows if we will do something together again? Maybe. I can answer for myself that I’m definitely hungry for more. But not necessarily another eight-year project. [Laughs]

CA: I think this will not be my only documentary film, but I don’t have anything planned right now. As Kristoffer said, it’s important to represent the film. It’s also our job now and it’s also a part of the education: How do you make a film, how do you talk about a film, and how do you represent your work when you are representing the film?

Amarsanaa Battulga is a Mongolian film critic and PhD student based in Nanjing and Shanghai. His writing has appeared in Cineuropa, Mekong Review, photogénie, among others.