Fur(trapping) is Murder, by David Bax
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga came about when Werner Herzog discovered a four hour work produced by Russian documentarian Dmitry Vasyukov. After cutting it down to a theatrical-length 94 minutes and adding his own voiceover, Herzog added his name as a second-billed director. Vasyukov deserves most of the credit given that he found the people, conducted the interviews and compiled the stunning and vibrant footage. Still, it’s not hard to see what attracted Herzog to the subject matter. The final product feels very much of a piece with his oeuvre.
Taiga is the word for the expansive Siberian forest that, we learn in the film, is one and one half times the size of the United States. Small villages exist along the river there that are only accessible by helicopter or, during the few months the water is not frozen over, by boat. One of the oldest ways to make a living in the taiga is to be a fur trapper. Happy People follows a handful of such men over the course of one year.
Harmony and disharmony in the relationship between man and nature is the subject, either directly or obliquely, of nearly all of Herzog’s work. The trappers in the taiga have struck a precise agreement with one of the harshest places on the planet. We very quickly are made to understand that, if one were to simply show up at the beginning of the winter sable-trapping season and arrogantly march off into the woods to hunt, that person would almost certainly fall victim to the elements. We meet the film’s subjects in spring, when the trapping from which they make their living is the better part of a year away, yet they are working every day. They use the warmer months to construct the skis that will get them across the terrain that will be many feet deep with snow come winter; they maintain the small huts within their trapping territory that will shelter them in the weeks at a time they’ll spend away from their families; they begin construction on the traps they need to capture their bounty. With a few exceptions, such as chainsaws and snowmobiles, they do all this with tools and materials that were available to those who lived in the taiga hundreds of years ago.
One of the best decisions made by Vasyukov (and then again by Herzog) is to detail the process of the tasks the trappers perform (particularly the skis, the progress of which we revisit throughout the film). Instead of making the film dry and technical, this approach gives us a picture of the long roots of tradition in this place. When one of the men explains that he is building a trap the same way it would have been done a millennium ago, what takes root is the necessity of tradition, craft, patience and, ultimately, respect. These trappers not only use trees and build fires, they also have dogs, without whom their jobs would be impossible. One of the film’s most memorable interview sequences concerns a trapper explaining that in order to have a good dog, you must respect it and not punish it harshly or take too strong a hand. This is the happy relationship these folk have with their surroundings, not for any ethereal spiritual reasons but because it’s what it takes to sustain them.
Since Herzog did not come aboard till well after principal photography was wrapped, the shots don’t have the same ponderous, lingering feel they do in recent works such as Cave of Forgotten Dreams or Encounters at the End of the World. That’s not to say that the images don’t have beauty, though. Vasyukov chooses to illustrate the vastness of the natural world that surrounds these men and their villages. Massive, ancient trees tower above. Rivers of ice stretch on for hundreds of miles.
Amidst all this, Herzog does not miss a chance to inject some his recognizable brand of weird humor. Of the potential size of the pike the men catch to feed themselves and their dogs, he says, “Some of them can be real specimens.” One can also imagine Herzog eager to include the sequence wherein – during the summer months – a politician makes a campaign stop by boat that becomes a bizarrely exuberant rally in front of an audience that wouldn’t fill a school bus.
Side by side with the comedy is, as usual, the tragedy. There is only one brief sequence dedicated to the indigenous peoples of this land but it is a vital one. Most of the trappers we follow have only been in the area a generation or two, having been given parcels of land during Soviet times. The Russians took the land from the natives and, in turn, introduced them to vodka. Those two acts have contributed, half a century later, to the near decimation of the original population. The inclusion of this section lends a dark irony to the title Happy People. As taken as the filmmakers are with the symbiosis of man and nature, they understand that both are as capable of cruelty as they are of peace.