' ' Cinema Romantico: Happy People: A Year In The Taiga

Monday, May 20, 2013

Happy People: A Year In The Taiga

Summer in Siberia and the air is awash in mosquitoes, so thick with them the residents are forced to dress head-to-toe in protective garments and cover their faces with netting. Well, all except for the trapper with whom we have become friends, hard at work chopping wood and prepping a hut, who has no netting to keep the swirling, blood-sucking mosquitoes away from his eyes and ears and nose. He seems……almost bemused. He says in his native language: “When you’re busy, you hardly notice them.”

Everyone seems busy here in the Taiga, a ginormous swath of land in eastern Siberia. Siberia is isolated to start and Taiga is even more isolated and even more isolated is the Taiga-set village of Bakhta. It is 300 people strong, reachable either by helicopter or by boat when the Yenisey River is not frozen solid. Our sort of protagonist in the documentary "Happy People: A Year In The Taiga", Gennady Soloviev, the trapper who forgoes the face netting, explains he came here in 1970 and was employed by the Soviet Union to trap game. He has stayed on ever since, tending to the same land granted to him by the communist regime. Politics are hardly mentioned, aside from one strange arrival of a campaigning politician. But no one pays him any mind. You can almost sense the landmark moment of the Soviet Union giving way to the Russian Federation having passed by unnoticed.

These people, more or less, are on their own, self-reliant to quote the narrator. The narrator is Werner Herzog, the legendary German eclectic, and while it is very much his film is also very much not his film. The actual footage, four hours worth, was shot by Russian filmmaker Dmitry Vasyukov, but then was seen by Herzog who took and whittled away Vasyukov’s material to craft this 90 minute documentary. He also, of course, added his infamous Herzogian balladry for voiceover accompaniment. The appeal of this story to him is obvious, not just the self-reliance but the accord with nature. No wonder he is the one who dubs them “Happy People.”

The film tracks Soloviev from the end of winter, which they burn in effigy while still being all bundled up, to the mosquitoes of spring to the too-few extra-long days of summer to the wintry fall to the arctic winter. It is in the winter that the trapper, off on his own with only a dog (given a reverential treatise here) for accompaniment, earns his living, but, as “Happy People: A Year In The Taiga” shows, preparation for trapping is a year-around event. The trapper is always busy.

The movie occasionally diverges from the hard-working but reflective Soloviev to catch up with another trapper related to the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky and also takes a brief detour to what remains of one of the area’s few remaining indigenous groups, the Kets. The portrait painted of them is quietly tragic – there is little work for them to do which leads to problems with alcohol even as they cling, somewhat desperately, to ancient customs. Whether it is meant as irony or not, these original Taiga inhabitants merely become tourists in this story of their land. And I suspect that is because Herzog’s heart lies squarely with the rugged and individualistic trappers.

Conflict is noticeably absent especially when considering the peril into which these people seem to put themselves so consistently. Incredibly difficult situations are seen and addressed, such as Soloviev returning from trapping to find his hut buried in snow or recounting her first winter in the Taiga on his own and short of supplies, but the danger always feels less than tangible. And this, I think, is because Herzog wants us to sense that these are just lives being lived, that is way of life is something they respect and danger is merely part of the bargain. It’s the same as Soloviev’s arc essentially being non-existent. There is no great triumph, no moment of holding a trap with the most desired prey above his head, but rather work, work and more work. Always more work to be done. Always busy.

 The reward for these “Happy People” is in the doing.

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