Film

'Price of Gold': Mining in Mongolia

The Mongolian miner Khuyagaa draws on his cigarette, behind him a pile of dirt and rocks, the result of his labor, the earth turned inside out.


Price of Gold

Director: Sven Zellner
Cast: Usukhuu Akh, Ochiroo Akh, Eegli, Khishgee, Khuyagaa, Aaigi
Rated: NR
Studio: Nominal Film
Year: 2012
US date: 2013-09-16 (Maysles Cinema)
Website
Trailer

"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."

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image