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Ice Age: Werner Herzog's new documentary about a year in the lives of Siberian fur trappers

MoviesWerner HerzogInterior PolicyIndigenous People

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
Opens Sunday, March 17 , through March 23, at the Cinestudio in Hartford, at Trinity College, cinestudio.org

Members of PETA might not want to watch Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, the new documentary by Dmitry Vasyukov and Werner Herzog about life in the frigid Siberian wilderness. There’s a fair amount of animal suffering depicted and alluded to in the film, which follows fur trappers and their dogs as they prepare for the season, mending, setting, baiting and tending traps that catch ermine and sable and other little furry creatures in the snow. Sables get killed by dogs, dogs get killed by bears, dogs get mistreated by owners. Those concerned about human suffering might find reason to look away as well, as these trappers, their families and their 300 fellow villagers seem to subsist in an almost prehistoric world of extreme weather, and what many of us would call crushing deprivation.

Happy People is in keeping with Herzog’s career-long fascination with primitive modes of survival, man’s ability to cope in the most punishing circumstances, and the awesome vastness of nature. Anyone who’s enjoyed Herzog’s films Grizzly Man, about a man who spent time with and was eventually killed by grizzly bears in Alaska, or The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about prehistoric cave paintings in France, will see a through line here. And Happy People fits in nicely with the great literature and films of the frozen north -- the stories of Jack London, John McPhee’s Coming Into the Country, Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, Nanook of the North, The Fast Runner and others. In Norway, the state-run television channel recently ran a two-part documentary on firewood -- cutting, splitting, stacking, storing and burning it -- that was one of the country’s most-watched shows (based on a best-selling book). So clearly there’s an audience for this type of frost-bitten, pelt-slinging, icy-bearded manly-man material. 

This icy landscape of the taiga, the vast subarctic forest, conveys a stark majesty. And some of these taciturn men bring to mind the Wallace Stevens poem “The Snow Man,” about how “one must have a mind of winter,” a psychic state that’s cold and still, to match the spirit of a frozen and bleak world of sub-zero temperatures. These trappers have minds of winter. They aren’t motor mouths. They spend much of the year with their dogs, in crude cabins buried in snow, or driving into the biting wind on snow mobiles, swinging axes to build traps made out of small trees, or ice fishing, hauling in pike to feed their dogs. In the first part of the season, the trappers store their provisions high in the trees, in boxes reached using a ladder, to keep their bread and food away from bears, who haven’t hibernated yet. The trappers store frozen fish, like grey glass baguettes stacked on their porches.

There are scenes of hypnotic beauty, of the river Yenisei heaving tectonic chunks of ice when its waters begin to thaw in May, of vast snowy landscapes and the prismatic effect of light through giant icicles. The solitude seems profound, and these rugged men clearly have a well-earned sense of pride in their self-sufficiency.

Happy People feels a little like an extended version of the kinds of film strips one might have seen in middle school science and social study classes 30 years ago. The camera adopts the slow-talking feel and steady gaze of its subjects. There are sections of informational whole-bran goodness, with extended sequences on how to make skis, from finding just the right straight-grained trees, to bending the tips after soaking the wood in boiling water. The swarms of mosquitoes in the summer have a biblical-plague quality, but the trappers don’t seem to mind much. Plus they make an effective insect-repellent tar out of the burnt bark of birch trees. The trappers smear the tar on their children and their dogs to keep the insects away. 

 
These tough, bearded dudes are pretty good company for a couple hours, and you’d definitely want them on your side in a bear attack, or if you were stuck out in a blizzard. (These guys could win in a beard-off with the most hirsute Brooklyn hipsters.) One of the more likable trappers, the one who gets the most camera time, provides some of the best stoic one-liners. “A good wedge is a man’s savior,” he says while splitting a huge tree for skis. “You are no hunter without a dog,” he says, discussing the work his canine companions do for him. Or, sounding like some dark angel of fate out of a Cormac McCarthy novel, when discussing the morality of trapping, “We are all killers, even those people who are kind-hearted and tend to pity everything.”

There are a couple things in the film I wanted to know a little more about. The footage of the few remaining indigenous people who live in the town shows them splitting and gathering firewood or making traditional canoes. There’s the suggestion that certain lines of work are denied to the natives, but it’s not exactly made clear how or why. The alcohol abuse of the indigenous villagers appears rampant and troubling. (One house burns down from what seems to be the result of drunken behavior.) The plight of these native peoples could make its own documentary.

And the story of how these trappers acquired the rights or access to their parcels of state land has something to do with communist-era policies. (One trapper tells of his first season in the wilderness, when he was given provisions and assistance by the state, but he still nearly died.) One wonders what kind of people end up in this remote landscape if they’re not born there. Are these the Russian equivalent of survivalists trying to get off the grid and back to the land? Happy People could do a better job providing context and history of the lives it depicts. But that’s not its aim. The film sets out to capture the grain and feel of a trapper’s existence. And it does that admirably.

Few viewers will likely want to sign up for life as a Siberian trapper after watching Happy People, though Herzog intends the movie’s title to suggest that despite the hardship and grit these trappers and their families are perhaps happier than many of us with our hectic lives, divorced from the cycles of nature. As Herzog says in the voiceover narration, these trappers “resemble prehistoric man from a distant ice age.” But they get to experience something rare: “the beauty of space, cold and silence.”

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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