Hot Docs 2024: 'Daughter of Genghis' Has an Upsetting, Inspiring Character Arc

Directed by Kristoffer Juel Poulsen and Christian Als

Photo courtesy of Hot Docs

BY Alex HudsonPublished May 6, 2024


Daughter of Genghis is a documentary following a mother and son through seven years of their lives — but it chronicles such a fascinating character arc that it couldn't have been paced any better if it were fiction.

Gerel is a Mongolian nationalist working to protect her culture from Chinese influence. On the surface, her anti-imperialist stance is admirable, but her methods quickly become upsetting: the main focus of her activism involves breaking into illicit massage parlours in Ulaanbaatar and shaming the sex workers. The level of access directors Kristoffer Juel Poulsen and Christian Als get to shocking, candid moments is remarkable.

Gerel uses the swastika as her group's symbol — theoretically because she wants to reclaim this symbol of strength and prosperity from the Nazis, except her talk about preserving the purity of the Mongolian bloodline is disturbingly similar to a Nazi ideology. She reveres Genghis Khan as the embodiment of Mongolian strength, completely ignoring the way he represents the very imperialism she campaigns against.

In the course of her activism, the single mother frequently neglects her young son Temuulen, leaving him alone for extended periods and, in one particularly harrowing scene, riding off on a horse and leaving him in the desert. Her own childhood was one of loss and neglect, and the pattern in repeating itself in parenthood.

She's a flawed, complex character to say the very least — but it's inspiring to see her growth each time the film jumps forward by a couple of years. She becomes increasingly self-aware about her flawed ideology, as well as acknowledging the grief that's at the heart of her anger.

Best of all is Temuulen, a truly adorable kid. He's a budding philosopher, at one point explaining to his mom how, through a few degrees of separation, he's friends with everyone in the world. It's a profound speech and a genuinely beautiful way of looking at the world — something everyone could stand to learn from.

Like so much of the moving Daughter of Genghis, Temuulen's off-the-cuff comments couldn't have been scripted any better if they came out of a Hollywood writers' room. It's a heartfelt lesson that, no matter how misguided we become in our lives, self-betterment is always possible.

(Taskovski Films)

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