Globalization’s growth has shrunk the world’s need for local labor. In many countries with large rural populations, herding and farming families find their work dwindling while foreign enterprises claim resources faster and in greater quantities than the natives possibly can. Mongolia—in which Sven Zellner’s documentary Price of Gold takes place—is an example. Among the landlocked, largely desert nation’s chief natural resources is gold, the mining rights to which have been seized and divided up by international companies, making it illegal for Mongolians to excavate their own soil. The scant income to be earned from animal meat and fur, however, often leaves them with little choice.
Price of Gold focuses on a small group of “Ninjas,” the popular name for the tens of thousands of nomadic Mongolians who illegally dig for gold today in the Gobi Desert. The film’s six human subjects—two organizers, three younger manual diggers, and a woman responsible for the most cooking that she has ever done—appear in the south Gobi performing daily routines. While most Ninjas dig at the surface level, this group goes farther, using dynamite underground. We see the bosses providing coil, helmets, and tools to the workers, who then descend into dark pits to drill at quartz, empty their haul into the light, crush it into dust, and sift.
A day’s work might, at best, yield a handful of gold, to be eventually sold on the black market or to large companies at a discount. Nighttime brings on meals eaten in a circle within a shared tent, with the bosses sometimes still agitated from how the day has gone. Then the film cuts to black, and the next day arrives.
The movie grew out of the four years that German debut filmmaker Zellner (who co-directed Price of Gold with Mongolian journalist, guide, and translator Chingunjav Borkhuu) spent in Mongolia photographing these Ninjas and their families, resulting in a photographic exhibition titled “Ninjas.” The still photos often catch in-process workers regarding the camera, their faces filled with haunting poetry, as though existing both within a specific moment and somehow outside of time.
In Price of Gold, by contrast, the men’s faces often vanish as they go underground, threatened with permanent disappearance: the risk of dynamite bursting early, or of rope breaking and leaving them trapped. The filmmakers find those faces again in private interviews above ground, each miner sitting away from the others to discuss how he feels about the job. A young man named Eegii wishes that his superiors would be easier on him; one of them, Ochiroo Akh, longs for the right to a handful of his own soil. Both sadly accept how the damage they do to the land violates their religion, which will keep them social outcasts.
The Ninjas are occasionally seen wrestling or throwing stones at bottle targets, and a sense emerges of the men playing to distract themselves from tedious despair. They do not want to be doing this forever, though their situation looks unlikely to improve. Price of Gold‘s last scene takes place 273 days after its opening, with Ochiroo Akh in debt to his workers, who are still digging. Meanwhile, mercury contaminates the air of a desert that, like global wealth, is expanding.