“Mongolia Felt Very Familiar”: Martina Radwan Discusses ‘Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow’
The story of Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, which had its world premiere as part of the U.S. Competition of DOC NYC 2023, started fifteen years ago. In 2008 Martina Radwan, a veteran New York-based cinematographer for films such as Saving Face (2012, which won an Emmy, IDA Documentary Award, and Academy Award for best short documentary), was sent by the United Nations to shoot a short documentary about street children in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
In a city where temperatures plunge below -30°F, these kids sought refuge and warmth in the city’s underground sewage system. “Manhole children,” the public and the press called them. Abandoned by their parents due to poverty or having run away from abusive homes in the years after the 1992 collapse of the socialist government, they numbered over 4,000 at one point. After finishing the assignment, Radwan went back to the U.S. but found herself on a plane back to Ulaanbaatar within weeks. Once back in Ulaanbaatar, Radwan sets out to fix things. She finds a foster family for three kids, Baaskaa, Baanii, and Nasaa, and buys them livestock so that they can go on to become independent in the near future. Everything seems to be going well until a heart-to-heart conversation shatters her illusions. Radwan soon realizes that she too has to step in front of the camera and acknowledge her intervention into the kids’ lives.
What was supposed to be just another job turned into a life-long relationship with Baaskaa, Baanii, and Nasaa. Radwan tells their story in Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, a feature-length vérité documentary that chronicles her dozen visits to Mongolia between 2008 and 2013. The result is a thought-provoking film that questions Westerners’ savior complex and shows great awareness of a less extractive mode of documentary filmmaking. Documentary spoke with Radwan over a video call about the origins of Tomorrow, the ethical and emotional challenges of making the film as a long-distance caregiver, and her hopes for the film’s impact. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DOCUMENTARY: Given your job as a documentary cinematographer, you must have been to many places and seen many things. Why did you decide to make this film in particular? What did you see in Baaskaa [the first of the three protagonists that Radwan meets]?
MARTINA RADWAN: When we went to Ulaanbaatar [in 2008], the issue of child homelessness was big. Mongolia was a country that was forced to change overnight and I’m from Berlin, so I knew firsthand what it means when a country has to change overnight from communism to capitalism. It all felt very familiar, which was very strange. I was at a point in my career where I really questioned what we were actually doing—we expect people to participate in a documentary for the greater good, but the people who are participating often don’t get anything in return. Then I met Baaskaa, who had a very clear plan for what he wanted to do. But it was also obvious that you cannot succeed unless you have a support system in finding a job, opening a bank account, and getting a home. You need somebody in your corner who is also telling you how this all works. I decided to dig a little bit deeper and ask the people who were involved in the shoot [for the UN short] how he can succeed and what he would need. And nobody had a real answer, partially because foreigners come in like, “Oh this is all so sad and I want to help,” and then they go off again and they forget about it. I went back home but I kept calling and asking, “What do we do? How do we help this boy?” I can’t change the world, but maybe I can help this particular boy.
D: At which point did you decide that putting yourself in the center of the story as another participant was necessary?
MR: At the beginning, I was very naïve, which is part of the film. I thought, I’m going to make a movie about Baaskaa and how all he needs is a second chance and he will succeed. But then I realized that things were not as easy as I thought they would be. I realized I can’t tell the story without including myself because I’m the catalyst for change. I’m why these things are happening and I have to own how much I impact their life for good or bad. Instead of telling a beautiful story about a kid who succeeds, I was more interested in telling the story about that power dynamic, the power imbalance, and how we impact people.
D: What was the most challenging problem you faced in terms of both practical and ethical problems during the filmmaking process, but also emotional challenges for you as a participant in the story?
MR: The challenge during the filmmaking was primarily that I was very aware of the power imbalance. Sometimes, I pointed the camera at moments where I thought, “Are they really agreeing to be on camera?” And the biggest ethical and emotional challenge really is that there is no clear answer to that question. You just have to ask yourself continuously every day, “Is this okay, can I do this, do they agree?” They wanted to tell their story but they had less of an understanding of what that meant. At the end of the day, I am the one who’s telling the story. But I cannot speak for them, I can only speak about what happened in combination with my actions.
D: You shot the documentary over six years. What was the editing process like? Most of the footage with dialogue where you don’t speak is in Mongolian, so did you have an interpreter with you in the editing room or did you need to have everything translated first?
MR: Everybody’s always like, “Oh, it took you 15 years to make the movie!” Yeah, but partially it was because I needed it translated. Time is always money and we didn’t have much money. We did translate everything because I didn’t want to prejudge. As a cinematographer, I'm very often shooting with people whose language I don’t understand, and so I do believe that I’m very fine-tuned into people’s body language and how they react to each other. But at the end of the day, you need to know exactly what they’re saying. Sometimes you think it’s the greatest scene, and it was really just about which car they liked the most.
D: What do you hope the film’s impact will be moving forward?
MR: I hope to make the audience understand what it means to grow up without a support system and how that impacts your entire life. I didn’t live on the streets, but I was homeless and I grew up without any support system and I had to do everything on my own. Although our story does take place in Mongolia, it’s very clear to anybody who has encountered similar issues that it doesn’t matter which country it is—the issues are always the same. I really hope to bring together people who are in the foster system, regardless of whether they're foster kids or mentors or social workers, and create an interest in the general population to mentor young people who lack support systems. It’s primarily emotional. But if you're young, it's very hard to disconnect the emotional and the economical because the economical always becomes the emotional. If you’re poor, you're just hustling, and you don’t have time to take care of yourself or the people around you.
Also, because Mongolia is traditionally so family-based, once you don’t have a family, it’s really hard to survive. Those are the people who help you find a job, find an apartment, and tell you how things work. In terms of Mongolia, I would hope that the film would open up the interest of the tight-knit family community to incorporate people who are maybe just in their broader community.
D: How are Baaskaa, Baanii, and Nasaa doing now? Have “the kids” watched the film? What did they think about it?
MR: It's so funny because I keep calling them the kids, but they're really not kids anymore. They're 30 and 33. They have seen the film and they like it a lot. Making the film was obviously a really hard process for me, but the one thing that kept me going was always imagining the moment that they would be on stage getting applause and recognition, not because of me, but because of who they are. And they’re doing really well. Baaskaa is working in construction, as he always wanted to, and he’s successful. Baanii went to university, completed his BA in engineering, and is now working in mining, which makes me nervous all the time but that’s a very lucrative job to have in Mongolia. Nasaa is still living at the farm, but she’s happy there. And we found her brother, who is married and has children. So now Nasaa actually has a first-degree family.
D: Why Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow? When I first read the title, I immediately thought of Macbeth.
MR: It’s funny how certain people who know about Macbeth make that connection. But there’s a scene in the film where I call Baaskaa and he says, “I know you’re coming tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.” That’s our way of communicating. Baaskaa and I have very deep conversations without a translator that are very philosophical and yet very limited in the language used. But what I also liked about this title is that it’s three, like the kids, and the entire story is about looking at tomorrow. What’s going to happen tomorrow? Is tomorrow a good day or a bad day? And the answer keeps changing.
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.