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November 27, 2014

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

by Franz Patrick


Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Directors Dmitry Vasyukov and Werner Herzog take a magnifying glass on the professional trappers who live in the village of Bakhtia, located in the heart of Siberia, for most of the year and go deep in the taiga, the wilderness that surrounds it, when winter comes around. The village is so isolated, it can only be accessed via helicopter and boats. As a result, the residents, about three hundred people, have learned to live off the land.

Two men named Gennady and Anatoly are followed by the camera as they make numerous preparations to ensure they are ready for the long winter ahead. We watch them pick trees that will make good raw material for skis, listen why a certain type of pattern in the wood makes a better material over another, and observe how the skis are made from scratch. Though the icy surroundings are both beautiful and curious, the foreground demands our attention: how a trapper handles the wood, how he evaluates his creation as it begins to take shape, and how he carries out necessary modifications to make the best product as possible. This man executes every step so well that it almost looks and feels instinctual. Of course, as he admits, his trade has to be learned.

But the attention is not only on how to make skis, canoes, huts, or traps. There are plenty of discussion about the dogs that aid and give companion to the trappers. In the beginning, it almost sounds like the animals have a certain hierarchy. Even though the old dogs may no longer hunt, they are still taken care of—assuming that it has been earned. This is surprising somewhat because the dogs are not treated like pets. It is implied that they are only as good as how they can benefit their owner.

I was regaled by the conversation about dogs having different personalities so a trapper must be wise in choosing which of his companion should be taken to the wilderness. Although dogs can be trained up to a point, there is truth in the fact that a dog who likes to chase moose cannot be prodded to chase a squirrel. There is a mutualistic relationship between a man and a dog but unlike people, dogs cannot learn a trade.

Some images do not require conversation or explanation. The melting of the frozen Yenisei River, one of the largest waterways in Siberia that connects to the Arctic Ocean, looks as if an invisible giant of great puissance is pushing it away to make room for the new season. The way the camera just lingers, focusing on the cracking sounds from underneath the ice coupled with the smashing of the walls of ice on the surface create a humbling experience. Like the cloud of mosquitos that can eat a dog alive, it is a reminder that nature is fierce unstoppable. Though it can be allayed to a degree, whatever will be will be.

“Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” is full of wonderment and at times humor. Try not to smile when tar from a birch tree is rubbed all over a dog—even children—to help repel those pesky mosquitoes. It is educational, too. I was not aware that mosquitos can live even in extreme cold weather.

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