Breaking waste picker stereotypes with ‘Baatar’


Space Entertainment is presenting “Baatar” (Hero), a docudrama inspired by the true story of D.Khurelbaatar, who changed his life of picking through waste for the better.

People living on the street and picking through trash are condemned as pathetic and lazy, but “Baatar” documentary shines a spotlight onto the real life struggles of people living on the street, showing that there’s more to their life than meets the eye. “Baatar” is expected to be featured at numerous prestigious festivals, according to producer E.Temuulen.

E.Temuulen spoke more about the film’s inspiration  in an extensive interview about “Baatar”.

 Why did you decide to film a docudrama on the lives of waste pickers? How did you find the protagonist?

President of the National Recycling Association D.Byambasaikhan told me about D.Khurelbaatar, who used to pick waste and trash from the streets, but found success and is now living well. He proposed that I make a film about this. Then I met with D.Khurelbaatar, wrote a script based on his life, and started filming it immediately. He might have been a waste picker, but now he owns two centers that collect secondary raw materials and he recently opened a new center, which is operated by four to five recovering alcoholics.

 Do most people view them as “pathetic” individuals?

This is an abandoned world that we don’t know much about. It was very difficult for us (the production team) to go into this society. Seeing them broke my heart. People thoughtlessly throw away trash, but waste pickers assort our garbage with their bare hands and take heavy sacks full of trash to collection centers all four seasons of the year. They do ecologically beneficial tasks for free. They don’t get much money in exchange for their huge sacks. They get 2,000 MNT per sack at most. They still make ends meet with what little they earn.

Practically everyone, including teachers, students and politicians, make demonstrations, but this group of people never speaks up for themselves. Yet, we blame, criticize and judge them as pathetic individual when they’ve done nothing wrong.

People say they’ll never become like them but anything can happen in life. Instead of criticizing, we should encourage them.

 How did the protagonist improve his life?

No one helped or gave D.Khurelbaatar a home. Someone told him to stop drinking and that there was a vacant job. That person gave hope to D.Khurelbaatar.

I asked him if he was ashamed during a conversation because I would have been if I’d been covered in mud, gotten cursed on the street, and been spit on the face like him. Even if I’d changed that life, I would be embarrassed to talk about it. However, he showed me where he collapsed and got kicked in the face, and told me that he walked away smiling. He said that he can now encourage others because he wasn’t ashamed back then. His words hit me hard as most people choose to hide their flaws and bad sides.

Do you think the society has forgotten and abandoned these people?

 I don’t know if politicians ignore them because of their bad image or because they don’t know about them.

According to a national census, there are around 300 people who make ends meet by picking trash. They might’ve had ID cards once. When we went to survey collection centers, there were around 3,000 people from a single district. Based on this, there are roughly 20,000 people living as waste pickers in Ulaanbaatar’s nine districts. These people might not be able to vote because they lost or don’t have ID cards or because they don’t think their vote is important. Still, 20,000 is a big number. We must support and encourage these people.


…Nowadays, children think heroes are people like Spiderman and Hulk, or prominent figures like Chinggis Khaan, D.Sukhbaatar, Olympic medalists and world champions. They are heroes for sure, but the concept of a hero has become very narrow. Similar to how all heroes started off as ordinary people, we can overcome challenges and live like heroes. The society needs encouragement to help lost people reach their goals…


 What was it like to meet waste pickers?

Lots of things hurt me while filming. There were women among them too. Their hands had calluses and blisters from picking wastes. Even when blood was dripping from their hand, they just licked it and continued picking trash.

I don’t know these people’s lives. I looked at them from a slightly different perspective and regarded them as another human being instead of judging them as bad people. Then I thought maybe these people are doing something really beneficial for us and lessening ecological problems little by little.

A purchasing center in Ulanbaatar
A purchasing center in Ulanbaatar

 What challenges did you face while filming?

It was very hard to film people carrying sacks because they felt self-conscious in front of the camera. They ran away from us and even chased us away. They agreed to talk with us in exchange for a cigarette or something else. We tried to handle them as well as we could.

We started filming when the coldest period of winter began so the camera froze, and actors and team members got frost bites. Some couldn’t feel their hands or legs. These things are something they must overcome though. Rather than being difficult, it was actually fun. Our team wants to do another film about these people.

 Why did you name the docudrama “Baatar”?

You, me, or anyone else can become a hero. Nowadays, children think heroes are people like Spiderman and Hulk, or prominent figures like Chinggis Khaan, D.Sukhbaatar, Olympic medalists and world champions. They are heroes for sure, but the concept of a hero has become very narrow. A hero is victory. Similar to how all heroes started off as ordinary people, we can overcome challenges and live like heroes. The society needs encouragement to help lost people reach their goals.

We showed the docudrama at nursing homes, prisons and military units before the premier. Apparently, suicide attempts are common in jails and prisons because most prisoners have lost the will to live. Even so, these people have thousands of tomorrows. You can lose or make a mistake but you can fix it. This is the message I want to give to others.

Alcoholism is a serious issue in the society. You can drink, but think before drinking. Is it really the best option? We try to put the blame on alcohol producers or someone else. Instead of blaming others, be careful and responsible for your own actions.

We raised this broad topic and tried to find the light within it. We found D.Khurelbaatar from it. He’s a true hero. He drank alcohol and lived unhappily for many years, but managed to find the correct path and is guiding others to success. It’s heroic to change others’ lives. I hope other young people change their lives and become their own heroes. This is our cry to society.


…Have faith in the thousands of tomorrows to come. Never give up. Be strong, courageous and fight again and again…


 It’s difficult to make people open up about themselves. While conversing with waste pickers, were you able to find out why they ended up picking trash?

There were people who used to be exceptional artists, police officers and economists among waste pickers. Like many others, they stumbled in life. They talked about their problems. Women shared very sensitive and hard issues. I can’t talk about the details because I promised them that I wouldn’t reveal it to others.

I understood one thing while talking to so many of them. Anything can happen in life. It’s wrong to blame people before trying to understand them. People avoid or go around waste pickers when they’re just walking on the street. When I asked them why they isolate themselves from society, they said “We don’t isolate ourselves from society. Society isolates us. I’m scared to go around public areas and Sukhbaatar Square”. Social attitude impacts them greatly. When someone tells them it’s their fault, instead of defending themselves, they succumb to the idea that they are at fault.

One of them said that they can’t look at people’s eyes because it’s obvious what they’re thinking while looking at them. Another said they can’t go into shops to buy bread because they’re chased away from public areas. They’re humans – they need to eat too.

I was filming one of them when they tried to go into a pharmacy but a guard stopped him because he thought he was trying to steal. People living on the street need medicine as well. We tried to take them to a restaurant but the managers didn’t allow it.

The society discriminates these people. If they aren’t disregarded so much, they might wash their clothes and shower before going to a store. It could give them hope that they could live like normal people. The negative stereotype in society is a huge issue in and of itself.

 What do you hope to tell viewers through “Baatar”?

I hope viewers become encouraged. Have faith in the thousands of tomorrows to come. Never give up. Be strong, courageous and fight again and again.

 “Baatar” is a nonprofit film. Isn’t this risky for your film crew?

This is the start of Space Entertainment’s projects for raising social awareness. The docudrama will be showcased in cinemas for free only once. Some people questioned why we’re doing something so unprofitable and who’d watch a docudrama. In my opinion, we must shoulder the social responsibility. Arts and culture guide the society. It becomes intellectual investment for us. Our team agreed to carry out the project because we consider it very important for artists to produce things beneficial to society and the public.

I’m very grateful to everyone who participated in the filming of “Baatar”. It costs 20 to 40 million MNT to produce a docudrama. Our crew worked day and night without salary and poured all their efforts into making this film. Forty of us united under a single goal. I’m very pleased with that. The names of people featured in the film have been listed on the poster, because it’s the product of everyone in Space Entertainment.


  1. Unfortunately this is the reality for many people around the world. Thank you Space Entertainment for showing that these individuals are people worthy of our respect and love. Have you thought of using English sub-titles so this important work can reach a larger audience?


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here