Werner Herzog’s “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” is a documentary about Russian sable trappers that shows living in extreme freedom requires an enormous investment in time and energy.
The film begins during a supposedly mild spring amid the freezing Siberian taiga. Almost anywhere closer to the equator, the subarctic temperatures would seem devastatingly harsh.
See trailer for “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” HERE.
While “Taiga” is a Herzog production, the footage was culled from a four-hour Russian TV documentary; he was involved in neither the pre-production nor filming. Yet this is clearly a Herzog film, about an extreme, idiosyncratic subject narrated in his well-known, German-accented cadence.
Just watching the footage of Anatoly, a sable trapper working non-stop in the strikingly beautiful but inhospitably frigid forest will make you wish you dressed in an extra layer of clothing.
Supplies can only be delivered in the summer. Anatoly makes different sets of skies for different seasons, splitting trees with a hand-made wedge. One type requires boiling the tip of the wood for a few hours, then delicately bending the front end up, tempering the wood in fire so it will maintain its shape.
He hollows out a carefully selected tree stump by hand to make a canoe that has a uniform thickness of about an inch. He builds a hut from logs, moss and earth; sable traps are made from tree branches, the same way it’s been done for centuries – “primitive” but highly effective – and designed to be as cruelty-free as possible.
In the winter, temperatures drop to 50 degrees below zero. There’s no access to medical help, no Internet, no cell phones. As Herzog puts it, “The enormity of solitude sets in.”
Even though the Yenesay freezes over, Anatoly cuts a hole through the ice, where a plentiful supply of fish swims in the river below. They are smoked for the long, cold hunting season – no refrigeration required. One hopes he has a jigger or two of Stoly to go with the meal.
As the following spring approaches, magnificent shots of the river thawing and flowing north towards the Arctic Ocean look like an enormous expanse of land transformed into molten ice.
In these conditions, the relationship between the trappers and their dogs is more than just “best friends” – it’s a life-and-death symbiosis. So when Anatoly returns to the village by snowmobile, it seems harsh to have the dog run through the snow over 90 miles without food.
The sound of a mechanical, petrol-driven engine is like an abrupt awakening from a dream, a slap in the face back into the 21st century. Few people socialized into the complex economic and social systems of the First World would last long in Anatoly’s world. Most of us wouldn’t want to trade our insulation from some of the harshest weather conditions on Earth, nor take the time to learn the varied wilderness skills accumulated over generations. And yet, after watching the film, one is left with a deeply mournful sense that we may have lost something in exchange for our comfort.
See playdates and locations for “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” HERE.
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