Northern exposure: Happy People: a Year in the Taiga ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 16, 2013)

Siberia has acquired a bit of a bad rap over the years, especially in literature and film. Granted, up until the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the phrase “We’re going to send you to Siberia!” usually indicated that “you are in some deep shit, my droogie” (it’s now a tongue-in-cheek colloquial for “a fate worse than death”). Yet, even during the gulag era, you couldn’t fault ‘Siberia’ (the geographical entity) itself for any state-sponsored maliciousness that occurred within its boundaries. And despite the bad press, it is actually quite a beautiful part of the world (nature has a funny way of remaining blissfully oblivious to the little dramas of the silly biped creatures who teeter about the terra firma for a spell before eventually falling over to provide some lovely mulch for the trees). This is the Siberia profiled in a documentary called Happy People: a Year in the Taiga.

Co-directed by Dmitry Vasyukov and Werner Herzog, the film observes four seasons in the lives of several northern Siberian fur trappers,  all hailing from the remote village of Bakhta. Vasyukov’s intimately shot footage mesmerizes, as Herzog narrates in his inimitable fashion, bringing wry and keenly insightful observations to the table. While Herzog came on board during post-production, anyone familiar with his work will glean what attracted him to Vasyukov’s project, particularly in the person of Gennady Soloviev-rugged individualist, stoic survivalist, and a Zen master with a fur hat.

On the cusp of winter’s first freeze, Soloviev and his two fellow fur trappers (each accompanied by their trusty workmate dogs) head out together on the Yenisei River in their hand-crafted dugout canoes, splitting up to head out to their respective “territories”, where they will spend the winter gathering sable and ermine pelts. Herzog is palpably enamored with the men’s river travails, prompting him to wax poetic about the struggle against the elements; not surprising since similarly challenging river journeys figure prominently in two of his most well-known narrative films, Aguirre the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo (Soloviev is much like a typical Herzog protagonist).

There are a few nods to modern amenities (snowmobiles and firearms) but the men essentially survive by their wits and stamina during these protracted solo expeditions, living off the land in accordance with time-honored local traditions, and it’s fascinating to watch. This dedication to self-reliance also extends to life in the village (which is accessible only by boat or helicopter). It’s a rough life, but the residents seem to be “happy”, taking it all in stride. Well, for the most part. While it’s easy to romanticize the idea of living off the grid…“with no rules, no taxes, no laws, no bureaucracy, no phones, no radio, equipped only with their individual values and standard of conduct,” (as Herzog reverently muses) the village is not entirely free of social ills (the problem of alcoholism among the indigenous native people of the region is briefly acknowledged).

As I was watching the film, a certain sense of familiarity began to gnaw at me. It was something about the stark wintry beauty of naturally flocked spruce forests, the crisp contrast of white birch against blue skies, and the odd moose galumphing into the frame. Or maybe it was the relentless vampirism of swarming mosquitos during the short but intense sub-arctic summer. Then it dawned on me. I had lived there! Was this a past life memory? Then I remembered that I don’t believe in that sort of thing…so I Googled a map of Siberia, which solved the mystery: the village of Bakhta lies roughly on the same longitude as Fairbanks, Alaska, where I lived for 23 years. I couldn’t see Russia from my house, but I now feel a spiritual kinship with these hardy Siberians. Okay, I’m not a survivalist (if I were to venture out on Gennady’s trap line; I’d end up like the protagonists in Kalatozov’s Letter Never Sent). But I think you catch my drift…

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