Home / News / Zoljargal Purevdash talks Cannes Title ‘If Only I Could Hibernate’

Zoljargal Purevdash talks Cannes Title ‘If Only I Could Hibernate’

Jul 25, 2023Jul 25, 2023

Zoljargal Purevdash's debut feature If Only I Could Hibernate tells the story of a teenager living in the yurt district of Mongolia's capital, Ulaanbaatar, who is determined to win a physics competition and earn a scholarship to a good school.

But his plans change when his mother takes a job in the countryside and leaves him and his siblings to fend for themselves. Rather than study, he's forced to take a risky job so he can buy food and fuel.

"My mum opened a shop in the yurt district when I was teenager and we saw many different kinds of people – some were nomads, some living in difficult situations, some parents buying alcohol for themselves, but no food for their kids, just a few cheap candies," Purevdash tells Deadline. "Somehow, I always wanted to create something for those innocent little children, to tell them a story that would make them happy, or to give them hope."

That story ended up being If Only I Could Hibernate, which premieres in Un Certain Regard on Sunday (May 21) as the first Mongolian film ever in Cannes Official Selection. The film not only explores the role of education as a route out of poverty, but raises questions about how to tackle Mongolia's toxic pollution.

The film is set over winter, and as Purevdash explains, winters don't come much harsher than in Ulaanbaatar, where temperatures plummet to below minus 30 degrees and the city is choked in thick smog for months at a time, as more than half of the inhabitants live in yurts with no access to heating and burn coal to keep themselves warm.

"As you can see in the movie, the air pollution is crazy in Mongolia," Purevdash says. "Every winter you have to breath it in, and the kids are also breathing it in, and have heavy metals running through their blood. But the solutions people are coming up with are total nonsense. They’re talking about using refined coal, when they should be installing solar panels."

After developing the script of If Only I Could Hibernate for several years, Purevdash says she was waiting through what felt like endless cycles of funding applications for international grants, but had also raised some finance from local sources, including the Swiss Agency For Development and Cooperation in Mongolia and a Mongolian fintech group.

"Every winter, when I couldn't shoot this film, I fell into a long depression," she says. "I almost gave up on the project, but thought that if I really believe in this story, I should put it on screen in any form possible. Eventually I called my French producer [Urban Group's Frederic Corvez] and said I’ve got this crazy idea – I’m just going to shoot with what I have."

This determination seems typical of Purevdash, who has written, directed and produced the film but whose journey into filmmaking was not a straightforward one. She decided at a young age that she wanted to write and direct but was afraid to tell her family who wanted her to enter a more conventional profession.

"We’d watch movies every Saturday night on Mongolian national television – films like Forrest Gump and The Shawshank Redemption, I found them so moving as a teenager," Purevdash recalls. "There was also a film from Thailand about a trans basketball player. It was the first time I realised you could make the audience totally understand your life and experience through watching a film."

Like the protagonist in If Only I Could Hibernate, Purevdash also excelled at maths and physics and won a scholarship to enter a prestigious high school. But instead of of pouring over physics books, she joined the school's drama group, then won another scholarship to study filmmaking at J. F. Oberlin University in Tokyo, Japan. After graduating, she returned to Ulaanbaatar, worked as an assistant director on several local films, then became a mother, which put her filmmaking career on hold.

In 2017, she entered an early version of If Only I Could Hibernate to the Berlin film festival's Talents Tokyo programme, a lab for Asian filmmakers, and won the Talents Tokyo Award: "That gave me the confidence that I was working on something worthwhile. But I had first timer's over-excitement and applied to all the international funds way too early," she remembers. "So I took some time to make three short films and continued working on the script."

Following her start at Talents Tokyo, Purevdash developed the project through a wide range of other labs and co-production markets, including TorinoFilmLab, Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum and Locarno film festival's Open Doors. She met Corvez at Talents Tokyo and along the way also met her associate producer, Malaysian filmmaker Tan Chui Mui, and Mongolian co-producer Batkhishig Sed-Ayushjav. She also secured post-production funding from Qatar and France.

While post-production happened overseas to fulfil funding requirements, the film went into production with a wholly Mongolian cast and crew. Several crew members were heading departments for the first time – the DoP was a stills photographer and the co-producer had a background in documentaries – while the cast was mostly non-professionals, including children who had grown up in the yurt district.

Mongolia does have a local film industry, producing around 40-60 films year, but Purevdash wanted kids from the yurt district rather than professional child actors for authenticity: "We did a casting call and I chose kids with characters that were similar to the script. I told them why I wanted to make this film, and these kids are so honest and pure, they can see what's happening around them, and wanted to help me tell this story."

She adds that with the mercury plunging to minus 42 degrees at one point, more pampered child actors might not have been able to deal with the shoot: "We had to put the cameras into a warm car every five minutes to stop them freezing. I covered my kids with thick blankets, gave them hot drinks and vitamins and put hot sand in their shoes. I don't think we could have done it without the kids’ strength and spirit."

Those kids are now flying into Cannes to walk the red carpet at the film's premiere in Un Certain Regard on Sunday (May 21). Battsooj Uurtsaikh, Nominjiguur Tsend and Tuguldur Batsaikhan head the cast of the film, which was produced by Purevdash's Amygdala Films and Urban Factory Production, with Urban Sales handling international distribution.

"I wanted people who breath this air to tell the story with me," Purevdash says. "Everyone worked really hard on this film and we hope it will make people think about how we can give an equal chance of a good education to every kid."

See the trailer for If Only I Could Hibernate here.

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