Documentary: Manhole Children

I’ve been meaning to post about Manhole Children, a Japanese-made documentary I saw toward the end of the Seattle International Film Festival a couple weeks ago. The film’s website gives this background:

In early 1990, with the fall of the Soviet Union, Mongolia was forced to make the transition from a communist to capitalist economy. The rapid introduction of a free market economy, however, produced massive economic confusion that caused massive unemployment and plunged nearly half of the population into poverty.


The documentary begins 8 years later in 1998. By this time, desperation has driven many parents to abandon their children. The thousands of homeless/orphaned children take refuge from the harsh Mongolian winter in manholes under Ulaan Baatar, where a networks of steam pipes keep them warm. The children, anywhere from 4 years old to teenagers, organize themselves in to gangs that look out for each other, scavenge for food together, and fight other gangs. We meet a few children who eke out a sad living eating things from the trash, and occasionally finding something they can sell to buy food. The filmmakers come back every few years, amazingly finding the same people again each time and following them through ups and downs all the way until 2008.

I can’t say it’s an uplifting or encouraging story, but it’s amazing to see how hard-working and brave these kids are living on their own, and eventually growing up and having children of their own. Seeing this makes me feel really good that we’re doing something to help out in Mongolia. If you’re interested in seeing this film, the website says it’s showing in theatres this summer, although they don’t list where. At the SIFF it won the Special Jury Prize for documentariesFor its emotionally brutal depiction of children surviving underground in Mongolia; the film both repulses and engages at the same time.” Very true.

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