By Don Simpson | February 28, 2013
Directors: Dmitry Vasyukov, Werner Herzog
In yet another intriguing entry into Werner Herzog’s documentaries about man versus nature, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga travels deep into the Siberian Taiga to a remote fur trading village called Bakhtia. Similar to his approach to Grizzly Man, Herzog was not present when any of this footage was shot. After the fact, he happened upon a series of four fully-immersive, ethnographic documentaries about trappers in the Siberian Taiga shot by Russian videographer Dmitry Yasyukov; Herzog then helped shape that footage into what eventually became Happy People: A Year in the Taiga. Next, Herzog added his unique brand of philosophical ramblings to the “narration” of the film, developing a focused message about individualism, thus developing Happy People into a very Herzogian film.
Yasyukov studiously follows a few trappers who — despite having families — spend a majority of their lives alone in the frozen wilderness. Their lives revolve solely around the trapping season; when they are not actively trapping their prey, they are diligently preparing for the next trapping season. From Happy People‘s perspective, the trappers’ work is never-ending and that is presumably what makes them happy. Trapping provides them with a purpose, a reason to exist; it allows for them to truly master a trade, then pass that knowledge along to future generations.
Herzog’s slant presents the Taiga as one of the final bastions of personal freedom, with “no rules, no taxes, no government, no laws, no bureaucracy…” The population of this remote locale is comprised of hunters and gatherers, they live off the land with the help of very few modern conveniences. Bakhtia is offered as a pure example of Communism in action, as the collective participation of the population allows for their continued survival and happiness. (The few useless loafers of the population lazily drown their depression with vodka.)
Happy People also contemplates humankind’s always prevalent struggle against nature. The temperatures are inhumane and the bears are relentless; yet these humans must rely quite heavily upon nature for their survival. Nature is their economy. They catch and grow all of their food — with a few exceptions, such as flour. The trappers rely upon the unwavering loyalty and unmatched skills of their dogs, allowing the trappers to collect furs that they can then trade to acquire items they cannot construct themselves (such as snowmobiles).
It is unclear as to whether Yasyukov opted to not focus on the trappers’ families or if that was Herzog’s call; either way, I find it to be a curious decision. If we are to believe Happy People, the trappers’ families — you might even say the entire community — survive because of the work that the trappers do. If that is truly the case, maybe the community is not as equal as we would expect? Or, maybe Happy People is just showing us how insignificant the families of these trappers are in the grand scheme of things. These men are happiest when they are facing nature alone; for them, family is a just rite of passage that serves one purpose: to continue the legacy of their work.