“Everything is difficult.” As she speaks, Aagi bends over a cook fire, preparing supper for a crew of gold prospectors. “I’m the only woman and have to cook for many men,” she goes on, “This is a tough situation, I think. I’ve never cooked so much.”
Cooking isn’t the only difficulty Aagi faces. As revealed in the film Price of Gold, the current excursion employing her doesn’t have a schedule or even a specific goal so much as it has hope. Or, as the gold digger Khuyagaa puts it, the workers have dreams, dreams that come with a price. “”They say dreams cost nothing,” he says in voiceover as you look out on what seems the endless Gobi Desert in Mongolia “But today, you have to pay for your dreams. I think first you have to find the money, to make our dreams come true.” The frame cut to a close shot of Khuyagaa as he draws on his cigarette, backed by a pile of dirt and rocks, the result of his labor, the earth turned inside out.
Khuyagaa squints in the harsh sunlight, a contrast to the environment where he spends much of his day, inside holes. The film begins inside such a hole, the camera peering down into a long narrow opening, then cutting to a shot of the men inside it, Khuyagaa and his fellow diggers at work with shovels and picks. “Check whether you can see gold or not,” one says to another, in this close dark space barely illuminated by their helmet lamps. “Prospecting for gold is nothing but a gamble,” notes Khuyagaa.
Screening at Maysles Cinema this week, Price of Gold looks at many kinds of prices, material, emotional, and spiritual. Whether framed by daylight or darkness, above ground or below, Khuyagaa and his coworkers face the unknown.
One shot shows them sleeping with only their heads shaded, poked underneath the jeep they’ve used to reach their desert digging spot, others show them climbing down into holes or setting dynamite charges. They do their best with a broken drill, they scoop their rice out of old plastic bowls. They share laughs and suggest what they’d like to do with Aagi. They wrestle in the dust, they argue briefly and they forget.
The team is financed by two bosses, Usukhuu Akh and Ochiroo Akh, who decided where to dig and for how long. “Our ancestors had a good tradition,” says Usukhuu, “The earth wasn’t exploited. We don’t have a choice, we’re simply poor. Life in Mongolia is tough, gold digging is a fight for survival.” Such awareness doesn’t make their struggle any easier.
Like the other 10,000 nomads trying to beat out the international corporate crews who come in with lucrative contracts, they work illegally, ever conscious that a dynamite explosion might alert environmental agencies or even local police. Still, day after day, the miners — derogated as “ninjas” — dig and dream, each afternoon mixing the dust they’ve discovered with water to check for the glint of gold, most often finding quartz.
If disappointment is common during the miners’ excursions, so too are tough, physical labor and incessantly bleak conditions (the wind sounds over all manner of shots, day and night, long and close). Whether in the light or in the dark, the possibility of havoc remains. And yet, even as Sven Zellner’s film makes clear the many sorts of hardships faced by the crew, it also suggests the reasons this life might be appealing.
For the bosses, this appeal has to do with a sense of self: “We are free,” Ochiroo says, “We are people who can do as we please.” For the workers, the attraction might be more abstract. The work is surely risky. “There are moments when you’re scared,” says Khuyagaa over a shot of dust swirling around a cable dropped into a hole, “But I try to keep the risk at a minimum. I work very carefully so it won’t collapse, so it won’t detonate me. I can only protect myself like this or else I’d die.” Still, Khuyagaa persists. He’s good at what he does, and maybe, someday, the risk will pay off.
All the workers face risks, no matter their particular jobs. Aagi never enters into a mining hole and never handles dynamite, but she confronts dangers too: When Usukhuu returns one afternoon after a night out drinking, he complains loudly and lurchingly that he can’t find his knife, even accusing his fellows of stealing it. Aagi speaks to the camera, apart from the men, worried that if Usukhuu gets hold of his knife, “He’ll stab someone or himself.” And so, she admits, “I hid his knife and then ran away, that’s what I do when they’re away drinking, I hide all the knives, then I wait.” She squats near her cook stove, pausing. The stove collapses.
It’s a brief moment in a film that follows the crew for over 270 days, but it’s a telling one, indicating that everyone’s experience seems at once oppressively routine and also harrowing. Even finding gold — the ostensible aim of each expedition — can be both exhilarating and debilitating, as an initial rush may soon give way to disillusionment: a couple of grams pays back precious little, as Usukhuu and Ochiroo realize they still haven’t made enough to cover costs. “One time you lose, the next time you win,” says Ochiroo. “I think it’s like a human life, it goes in waves like a heart beat, always up and down.”