In January 2013, I came to learn about Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov’s documentary film “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” via Steven Boone’s review and late Roger Ebert’s blog post. While I became quite curious about the documentary after reading their enthusiastic pieces, I somehow missed the chance to watch it at that time, and I only came to be reminded of its existence when I discovered several years later that it was available on Netflix in South Korea (Sadly, it is no longer available on Netflix in South Korea at present).
Like many of Herzog’s notable documentaries such as “Grizzly Man” (2005) and “Encounters at the End of the World” (2008), the documentary observes and meditates on an extreme case of nature and human condition, and its main subject is the life of the people in a small village named Bakhtia, which is located in the middle of the Siberian Taiga. Divided into four seasonal chapters, the documentary closely observes how difficult and demanding life can be for those fur trappers living in the village, and we cannot help but awed and amazed as watching them willingly and contently going through one hard season after another.
The documentary opens with the village during early spring days, which is still covered with lots of snow even though the weather gets warmer day by day. We meet a fur trapper named Gennady Soloviev, and we see him doing a number of spring works including making wooden skis. While he and other fur trappers in the village use a few modern equipments including a chainsaw for their work, they mostly depend on basic tools and primitive skills, and that certainly reminds us a lot of how our ancestors worked during prehistoric age.
As spring continues, the surface of a nearby river is thawed enough for boats and canoes, and the town becomes a little merrier as celebrating May Day, but Soloviev and other fur trappers (one of them is a distant relative of Andrei Tarkovsky, by the way) already begin the preparation for the next hunting season. Each of them has each own hunting territory more than 1,000 square kilometers (386 square miles), and we later observe Soloviev marking one of those numerous sites for his traps in advance.
When summer comes, the landscapes look greener and livelier with more life activities in river and forest, but this seasonal change is accompanied with lots of mosquitoes constantly buzzing around whatever they can suck blood from. As a guy with lifelong aversion to mosquitoes, I frequently cringed as hearing that loud buzzing sound of mosquitoes on the soundtrack, and that surely made me promise to myself that I will never go to the Siberian Taiga during summer days. Despite those annoying mosquitoes, Soloviev keeps working as usual, and we later see how he makes homemade repellent. All he needs is tree bark and tar, and, as far as I can see, his homemade repellent seems to work well, though he still has to wear thick gloves and clothes while working outside.
Meanwhile, the movie pays some attention to a group of indigenous tribe people living in the village and their fading culture and tradition. We see an old man making a traditional canoe step by step, and then we are informed that this traditional skill of his will be gone once he dies. We also meet an old lady who has a number of traditional artifacts, but, alas, many of her belongings are later gone due to an unfortunate fire accident, and we subsequently see her and several other tribe people leaving to somewhere by a helicopter.
As autumn arrives with chillier weather, daily life becomes far busier for Soloviev and other fur trappers because they now have to check whether everything is okay in their respective hunting territories. We see Soloviev doing some repair on his base hut and additional huts, and we also watch how he prepares food and other commodities to sustain him throughout the upcoming winter season.
When winter eventually begins with lots of snow, Soloviev and other fur trappers are quite ready to work under its very harsh condition. After all, they have been quite accustomed to this extreme condition for many years, and we subsequently get several memorable moments as some of them become reflective about their enduring way of life. Their life has surely demanded a lot from them, but they have been happy and content with that while also proud of how they have lived and worked all by themselves, and Herzog, who did the narration for the documentary, apparently admires their tenacious individualism: “They live off the land and are self-reliant, truly free. No rules, no taxes, no government, no laws, no bureaucracy, no phones, no radio, equipped only with their individual values and standard of conduct.”
In conclusion, “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga”, which was edited from a four-part Russian TV documentary made by Vasuykov (You can find it on YouTube, by the way), is unforgettable as giving us a vivid, fascinating glimpse into the Siberian Taiga and the life of the people living there, and I particularly admire how Herzog brings more special quality to the documentary via his distinctive voice and interesting philosophical musings on nature and humanity. Yes, I still do not want to go to the Siberian Taiga, but I may revisit the documentary for appreciating again what Herzog achieved along with Yasyukov.