Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (Werner Herzog)

Not that long ago, but in a land far enough away, there is a village populated by people leading simple lives regulated by the rotation of the seasons: spring flows into summer, which in turn gently eases into fall that then folds, ever so quietly, into winter.

During the 12 calendar months, happiness reigns in the mysterious and stunning Siberian Taiga that is resplendent with spruce trees, a majestic river and nature’s bounty.

The scene sounds idyllic, and in the hands of German filmmaker Werner Herzog, Happy People: A year in the Taiga, portrays the village of Bakhtia as a fairytale come to life. (Personal disclosure: Move aside Dos Equis man, I consider Werner Herzog to be the most interesting man in the world.) But in the true sense of his storytelling predecessors die Gebrüder Grimm, Herzog delves into the darkness of the fairytale.

Post-Soviet era, Bakhtia appears trapped in time with lingering Communist nuances. The villagers came to the “collective farm,” (as one interviewee refers to the village) from various parts of Soviet society: as one trapper navigates his narrow and long wooden boat upstream, Herzog’s calm narrative voice explains that the man is a relation of famed Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris, Nostalghia). The indigenous peoples of the community admit to having trouble with alcohol and work. During the filming, the last of their protective spirit dolls are destroyed in a house fire started by a cigarette.

The hero of Herzog’s tale is a man whose rough-hewn face could easily grace the cover of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. Having arrived at the life of a trapper as a young man, he nearly died of starvation during his first winter working as a trapper in Siberia, and then never left. He could be 100 years old, but is likely closer to 50, and for most of the film he calmly shows Herzog the elements of his, and his fellow trappers, sustainable and independent life: stocking cabins on the trapline, making skis, setting traps.

Filmed in a style reminiscent of 1970s Canadian Film Board documentaries, it might come as a surprise that Herzog’s film was made in 2010.

Without explosions, hardly a raised voice, very little drama, Happy People is a meditation on a way of life that few people experience, but will be familiar to many people who live in the circumpolar region.

Published in Arcticamag.ca 19/10/2012