“Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” – An Engrossing Look at a Dying Culture
Legendary German film-maker ‘Werner Herzog’, for the past four-and-a-half decades, have taken extreme endeavors to bestow us with dazzling documentaries (more recently “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”). He is fascinated with man Vs nature scenario. His movie protagonists are men possessed by an obsession, like the Peruvian rubber baron who drags a huge boat in a step mountain to build an opera house in the middle of the jungle (in the film “Fitzcarraldo”). Herzog’s real-life documentary subjects don’t vary from his film protagonists. They just happened to be leading a real life with the traits of Herzog’s characters. His phenomenal and poetic documentary “Grizzly Man” portrayed the cruel emptiness of nature’s fury, whereas the 2010 documentary “Happy People” – set in a cold, rugged landscape of Siberia – is rumination on liberties of a remote hunting culture.
Herzog traveled to Antarctica to make “Encounters at the End of the World” (in fact he is the only film-maker to have directed film/documentary in all the continents), but for “Happy People”, he didn’t leave the confines of his editing suite. Yeah, the remarkable footage of an isolated Siberian village were not shot be Herzog, but a Russian filmmaker Dmitry Vasyukov. Herzog came across a four hour Russian television documentary in his friend’s house, in Los Angeles. He later contacted the documentarian Dimitri and proposed that he would re-edit the footage into one 90-minute documentary with English subtitles (an international version, with new musical scores) and his own inimitable voice-over. Vasyukov accepted and the result is a fascinating travelogue, which takes us into the Siberian Taiga, so far from civilization that it can only be accessed by boat or helicopter.
Herzog has chronologically divided the documentary into four seasons, showcasing various rituals and crafts of the hunter-gatherers. The name of the village is Bakhtia and the population is only 300. We see a trapper’s life through Gennady Soloviev, who painstakingly makes his own pair of skis from timber he felled himself. The bearded Soloviev, who reminds us of a Tolstoy character, delivers excellent soliloquies about the moral code of their people. His digressive speeches also cover the relationship between a hunter and his dog. Herzog, conjuring up the images of dog shows his favorite, keen-eyed observation about man and beast.
The villagers only have few modern luxuries like the chain saw or snowmobiles. Most of the arduous tasks are carried out by prehistoric tools and methods that have been passed down for centuries. In spring, Soloviev checks his traps, catches fish atop the snowdrift and explains how to select wood for ski making. Canoes, traps and even mosquito repellent are all laboriously prepared by themselves in the summer (light remains for 20 hours a day). The immersive patience and commitment found among the villagers is rare thing, worth savoring.
Bears are the greatest threat to the livelihood of trappers. They place disposable squares of plastic on the windows of the cottage, which get pawed and clawed so often it’s not worth replacing the glass. They also built watch-tower like wooden building to store the foods. Once the winter starts, the bear gets into slumber. At those times, the food is kept inside the cottage, but hanged down to protect it from the mice. There are also many compelling scenes, where we can observe that a busted ski could be the difference between life and death in this wilderness. Although the documentary concentrates mostly on the trappers of Russian descent, we also get to peak into lives of native Siberians, who seem to have suffered the same fate as natives, all around the colonized world, demoted to menial labor and alcoholism.
Herzog’s take on Vasyukov’s footage seems obsessed with the notion that Soloviev and his fellow trappers are living in a libertarian state of ‘complete and utter freedom,’ untouched by government, taxes, or any other social constraints. However, the problematic assertion a viewer could find is the use of word ‘Happy People’ in the title. The word ‘Happy’ comes from Herzog’s longing for the ideological purity, free of bureaucracy and technology. But, these people are also living solitary, hard life and endure all the common problems that we all have. Women are seen only when they get to greet or bid farewell to their men. At other times, they just remain as non-entities. It is safe to assume that these villagers are not yet undisturbed to enjoy their kind of sublime existence.
“Happy People” is about self-reliant people, who are willing to confront the wild nature. Herzog’s involvement imbues a great beauty to the footage and his accented English narration is a joy to listen to.