Sitting on a sea of gold, Mongolia has long been the target of foreign companies willing to stake a claim in its untapped riches, much to the handicap of its indigenous population. The nomadic prospectors who’ve seen no other choice but to dig for gold themselves has grown to upwards of 100,000 in the 10 years they began popping up. Sven Zellner, working with co-director Chingunjav Borkhuu, documents one contentious family of sorts as they traverse the Gobi Desert in search of hitting the jackpot, most of the time coming up empty, but pushing on regardless. With Mongolia having been hit hard during the recent economic recession, the scruffy band of prospectors becomes a microcosm of class division and social status. Zellner’s alternately captivating and redundant documentary slowly reveals itself not to be about workers desperate to make a living, but speaks more to the unacknowledged necessity for each other in order to live, a history of shared experience in part holding them together.
Though some semblance of the prospectors’ personal lives tend to seep through in interviews, Zellner seems more interested in capturing the process of their laborious work, be it lowering a man into a small hole that could spell death and the delicate method of planting dynamite. These scenes are mostly shown in shrewd real time, giving the film a measured pace that mirrors the patience that the workers’ job requires and unveiling the dwindling hope they feel in actually finding gold. The protracted and grinding moments of repeatedly failed endeavors offer a fascinating anticlimax that articulates an impasse arising in the workers when faced with bust after bust: a boilerplate decision of whether it’s wise to, considering their financial situation, either abandon the job or risk the danger and continue. But one ultimately can’t survive without the other, as evidenced by the sense of societal order in the group. Unspoken rankings have been established, with the foreman the ostensible leader and sole woman the cook/caretaker, frequently the target of misogynistic remarks in which Zellner tests our sympathy toward his subjects. As one man states, he doesn’t want to stay in the group, but he also can’t leave.
Yet while the real-time aesthetic approach sporadically enthralls, it also reveals the narrow worldview that burdens the film. By the end, the deliberately repetitive structure doesn’t seem designed to portray workplace monotony, but because Zellner has run out of material to work with. During interviews with the prospectors, Zellner is only able to wrangle talk of their poverty and how digging for gold is the only outlet for success, which turns into unremitting speechifying. Barely elaborating on the inherent politics in the subject matter and altogether avoiding other numerous factions of gold diggers, it comes as a refreshing aside when the film deviates briefly from the workers to a group of goat herders, who state their antipathy toward prospecting while shockingly slaughtering a goat. With such unfortunately deflated context, the film’s pointedly political final message doesn’t nearly have as much bite as Zellner hopes it would.