Siberian fortitude highlights fascinating Russian doc, ‘Happy People’
If you’ve seen Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World, then you know what German filmmaker Werner Herzog thinks about the terrible, unforgiving grandeur of Nature. So it’s interesting that he’s chosen to sponsor Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, a Russian-made documentary about hardy villagers eking out an existence as their families have done for generations on the edge of the (mostly) frozen Siberian wilderness (called the “taiga”). The original version was a four-hour documentary for Russian TV by filmmaker Dmitry Vasyukov; Herzog has edited the footage down to a fleet 90 minutes and added his own inimitable voice-over narration to bring the film to a wider audience.
Vasyukov and his team spent one year in Bakhtia, a village of 300 souls on the banks of the Yenisei River, and the surrounding taiga, recording the daily and seasonal routine of its inhabitants. It’s a brutal landscape, most often blanketed in ice (including the river), except for the short summer when everything is blanketed by mosquitoes. The only way in or out is by helicopter, or boat (during the few months of the year when the river is flowing, not frozen solid).
Needless to say, the Bakhtians are a textbook example of self-reliance. Their livelihood depends on hunting and trapping sable and ermine (eating the meat and selling the pelts), and fishing for enormous (and abundant) pike, which are mostly fed to the dogs that are also essential to their survival. When the men are not off in the taiga during hunting season, they are busy felling trees, and planing the bark with hand axes to shape their sturdy snow skis, building and mending their traps, and hollowing out tree trunks by hand to build their dugout canoes.
In the spring (hardly any less icy than winter), the trappers go back into the wild to excavate the network of huts used in the trapping season out of the snow, and secure their provisions against bears. In the verdant summer—coated in homemade insect repellent distilled from burned birch bark—the villagers throw out their fishing nets, garden in greenhouses, capture driftwood off the river for firewood, and collect pine nuts. Autumn brings weeks of relentless rain; the river rises and trapping gear can be transported into remote areas of the taiga—along with dozens of loaves of bread, pre-ordered from the local bakery, that will provision the huts (naturally frozen) during the winter trapping season.
It’s fascinating to watch the craftsmanship with which these people perform their tasks, using methods handed down through the centuries (including night fishing by torchlight, using what Herzog describes as “almost pre-historic tools”). Yet the Bakhtians are not a pre-industrial society by any means; the trappers navigate the taiga on snowmobiles, and make use of chainsaws, outboard motors and blowtorches, whenever they can. It’s just that generations of surviving, even flourishing, in extreme conditions (30 degrees below zero is considered “unusually mild”), has bred a remarkably hardy and motivated populace.
Is the title, Happy People, ironic, given what we know of Herzog’s love-hate relationship to Nature? Evidently not; the point is to praise the “industry and perseverance” of the Bakhtians—and praiseworthy it is. As one trapper explains, “Once you learn a trade, you have that trade the rest of your life … you can take away health and wealth, but you can’t take away craftsman’s skills.” Another says, “I’m my own man—and hunting is great fun!”
In counterpoint, we’re offered a glimpse of a neighboring group of people who have somehow lost their craft skills and folk ways, and are now only fit for doing menial tasks for the Bakhtians and drinking too much. Who they are and their history may have been more fully explored in the long version, but Herzog leaves the rest of their story on the cutting-room floor. It would also be interesting to see more of how the women and children keep the home fires burning while the men are off in the wild. Still, the film works as a bracing travelogue of a fiercely exotic locale, while extolling the rewards of lives lived in pursuit of community and purpose.
A YEAR IN THE TAIGA
★★★(out of four)
Directed by Dmitry Vasyukov and Werner Herzog.
A Music Box release. Not rated. 90 minutes.