The combative relationship between humanity and nature has been a recurring theme in Werner Herzog’s films since the early ’70s, but while it provided a subtext for movies like Fata Morgana, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, and Fitzcarraldo, his more recent documentaries have allowed Herzog the opportunity to fully immerse himself in the beauty and danger of the natural world. The White Diamond, Grizzly Man, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams all touch on the notion of man insinuating himself where he doesn’t normally go (and possibly doesn’t belong), and Herzog has returned to the wild in his latest documentary, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga. This time around, Herzog and co-director Dmitry Vasyukov spend a year examining the lives of a handful of men who have learned to live in harmony with nature, but that’s not to say nature ever tries to make it easy for them, or that they have any illusions about their surroundings -- Happy People might show how they can live with the land, but it’s clear that it’s an uphill battle most of the way.
Bakhtia is a small village along the river Yenisei in Siberian Taiga. It’s home to three hundred people, and by necessity, most of them make a living through trapping and fishing; the only way to travel to Bakhtia is by helicopter or boat, and once winter sets in, one has to wait until spring for fresh supplies to be brought in. As a result, self-reliance and the ability to make do in the wild are crucial. In Happy People, the villagers of Bakhtia follow a life cycle that has become as instinctual (and as dictated by the seasons) as that of any of the animals around them. At the first signs of spring, the men begin harvesting trees for fuel and the other items they’ll need in the coming year, such as canoes, skis, and traps. In the summer, everyone gardens, builds huts, and wards off the swarms of vicious mosquitoes that breed near the river. In the fall, they harvest crops, stockpile food and supplies for the winter, and make final preparations for the coming trapping season. And with the arrival of winter, the trappers set off to their individual territories, where they spend long days checking and resetting traps, bringing in pelts, fishing beneath the frozen river, and struggling against snowstorms and temperatures that are as cold as 55 degrees below zero. The trappers generally do all of this with gear most folks would regard as primitive; chainsaws, outboard motors, and snowmobiles are among the few technologies from the 20th century that they are willing to use, and most of them rely on snares fashioned from trees in the wilderness and hand tools that don’t use fuel or require complicated repairs.
Happy People gets its title from Herzog’s narration as he follows the trappers into the frozen woodlands, and these men truly do seem to be in their element as they head out on their own, with only their skills as outdoorsmen and their wits to guide them (and only their dogs for companionship). But Herzog appears to quietly cherish the irony that the limitless freedom that makes these men happy is coupled with brutally hard work and isolation that would drive most people crazy, and while most of the movie’s time is spent with the trappers, Herzog does focus briefly on others in the village who lack their skills; most of them subsist by harvesting driftwood from the river and while away their downtime with vodka. And though there are women in Bakhtia, the film acknowledges them only in passing, as they look after their homes and children while the men do the backbreaking but more photogenic work that keeps everyone fed.
Not all of the movie’s focus comes from Herzog, of course. Dmitry Vasyukov, credited as co-director, was responsible for the film’s original version, a four-hour television project, while Herzog reportedly reworked the longer cut into the 94-minute edition being released in the United States. The Russian camera crew who shot the picture did a splendid job, and Happy People is filled with beautiful images that complement the rough, weather-beaten homes of Bakhtia (and the similarly weathered men who live in them). And while in many respects this often plays like just another documentary about people living a seemingly outmoded way of life, Herzog’s narration (which he wrote and delivers in his characteristic tone of cautious urgency) puts a distinctive spin on the material, as he obsesses over the stakes of survival in Bakhtia, the push and pull between humanity and the elements, the traditions that are fading away with each generation, and the relationship between the trappers and their animals (the dogs that they raise and work with, and the various wild creatures they trap). Herzog also finds room for some snarky wit thanks to the arrival of a politician who briefly appears in Bakhtia every few years to ask the people for their vote, and otherwise is never seen or heard from. It’s clear Mother Nature is the real boss in Bakhtia, and Happy People: A Year in the Taiga documents a few men doing a wary pas de deux with her in a genuinely fascinating and intelligent fashion.
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