Today: June 18, 2024

Happy People: A Year In Taiga

A director well-known for his exploration of extreme subjects and remote locations, Werner Herzog continues the work of 2007’s “Encounters at the End of The World” with his new film “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga”.

A director well-known for his exploration of extreme subjects
and remote locations, Werner Herzog continues the work of 2007’s “Encounters at
the End of The World” with his new film “Happy People: A Year in the
Taiga”.

Despite
being set closer to home than his 2007 documentary on the Antarctic, Herzog’s film on a year in the life of
Siberia’s residents feels no closer to our everyday life.

Herzog
has trimmed Russian director Dmitry
Vasyukov
‘s four hour made-for-TV documentary into an enticing and
well-paced 94 minute long feature documentary. As in “Encounters at the End of The World”, Herzog seems capable of
finding the philosopher in everyone, and here we are privy to the musings of a
number of Siberian fur-trappers as we follow them through the course of the
year.

Most
of the film is focused on the everyday life of residents of the Siberian
village of Bakhta. We watch them fishing for pike, preparing their traps for
the following season and carving new wooden boats. We witness their constant
interaction with nature, ranging from lessons on how to chose the perfect tree
to carve skis out of, to how to make a tar from the bark of birch trees to
slather on dogs and children as mosquito repellent.

While
the film is sold as following the lives of indigenous people of the Taiga, it
doesn’t really: most of the characters are Russians, and we learn that there
are few of the indigenous Ket people left. Indeed, one of the most interesting
interactions features a group of Ket workers debating whether their culture’s
downfall, in part due to widespread alcoholism according to Herzog, is their
own fault or that of the Russians (who brought vodka in the first place).

The
film certainly romanticizes the fur-trappers – they are the ‘Happy People’ of
the title. And there is indeed something noble about their lives: they live in
time-trusted ways, with a strict sense of values, and an ability to survive a
Siberia winter with only a trusty dog and the most basic of tools. They
incorporate modern technologies when it benefits them – ie snowmobiles – and
stick with traditional methods when they still suit the conditions best – one
of the hunters, for example, swears by homemade skis.

Given
less attention is how the women fair in this climate: while the men disappear
all winter to hunt sable and commute with nature, their wives and mothers are
left in the village of Bakhta. Do women too not deserve to be Happy People? The
less glamorous side of Siberian village life is also breezed over: the people
basically lack political representation and are a helicopter ride away from the
nearest hospital. Education – of the modern sort anyway – isn’t even mentioned.

Despite
these shortcomings, Herzog’s anthropological eye and fantastic cinematography
results in a rewarding exploration of another way of life, and a reminder that
happiness exists in places far from Wifi coverage.

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