Happy People plays at the Grand Cinema one day only, on Tuesday, March 26.
Such is the claim of one of the virile characters in Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, a documentary co-directed by Dmitry Vasyukov and the prolific German filmmaker Werner Herzog.
These words seem familiar to an American audience, almost stereotypical of the mentality by which we are regularly defined. But the words are spoken by a Russian sable trapper living in the middle of Siberia with nary an outlet to civilization as we know it. “Amurrican?” Far from it.
The film follows a year in the lives of sable trappers in a remote Bakhtian village: a year that, like every other, is a quest to survive the harsh conditions. Herzog and Vasyukov present the narrative as a slice-of-life drama, an everyday epic for which the camera crew is merely along for the ride.
Herzog and company are enthralled with the lives of the men they’re following. In fact, the directorial duo seems more than glad to cooperate with the decidedly masculine culture they document. Women make brief and obligatory appearances; the rest of the time, we spectators follow the Russian men through the wilderness and let Herzog’s narration wash over us.
When that smooth German accent does its best, it easily persuades us of the extraordinary nature of the men we’re watching. Yet Herzog’s narration can be just a little problematic. At one point he rises to sublime heights of description/sinks into the worst kind of glorified othering:
“Now, out on their own, the trappers become what they essentially are: happy people. Accompanied only by their dogs, they live off the land. They are completely self-reliant. They are truly free. No rules, no taxes, no government, no laws, no bureaucracy, no phones, no radio, equipped only with their individual values and standard of conduct.”
As this voiceover overlaps with symphonic music, we see footage of a man steering a canoe upriver by means of an outboard motor. Herzog goes on to tell us that this man’s name is Mikhail Tarkovsky, relation of the acclaimed Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky. In a truly odd juxtaposition, the film insists on the technological self-sufficiency of the Taiga people, while aligning them with modern advancements like the internal combustion engine and one of the most technologically advanced forms of art: cinema.
And Herzog’s narration isn’t the only aspect that rings less as documentary and more as poetry. The invisibility of the camera’s presence that makes this otherwise lovely journey is also problematic. A documentary common practice, to be sure, but Herzog is among the most adept and savvy of documentarians; he knows what he’s doing when he makes the choice to keep the presence of a non-native film crew completely out of the camera’s field of vision. The technique potentially ignores the camera’s very real and very foreign presence on that home turf, keeping at arm’s length a world that it conflictingly wants to bring within our reach.
By distancing the audience from the Siberian snow and its inhabitants, Herzog is free to perform a documentary of poetry, a free-form ode to an idealized people that he profoundly admires and wants us to admire, too. And what’s wrong with poetry? Nothing, of course…but beware of poetry masquerading as simple history.
To be fair, Herzog acknowledges the presence of chainsaws and snowmobiles in this land of self-reliance. And the camera records myriad other technologies that have somehow made their way into this inaccessible wilderness. And herein lies the real hazard of Herzog’s hidden camera: there is no such thing as a “pure” culture since every culture is the progeny and interpretation of others. By holding aloft the Taiga people as “other,” therefore perhaps better, idealization becomes falsification.
Herzog wants us to see this world as unblemished by all that is modern, a time warp into an edenic realm. In so doing, he makes choices about what we see and what we don’t. But enough contradictions slip through the cracks to reveal his construal of this society.
Even a glorified interpretation is an interpretation, not equal to the original.
But to be even more fair, the subjects that Happy People documents deserve our attention. As we complain about spotty 4G service and navel-gaze about “the nature of art” and other such privileged questions, there remain folks in this world whose isolation brings out something we are unlikely to see in ourselves.
When the Siberian trapper says he is his own man, he says it without the pretense that we almost reflexively hear in such a statement. He knows his dependence on the land, the ecosystem of which he is a part. When he recounts his dog’s death at the hands of a bear, we are not likely to roll our eyes at his tears, perceiving his reliance on and love for an animal whose loyalty allowed him to keep on living.
The moral of this story is not: “Eat your dinner; there are starving children in Africa.” On the other hand, it’s not far from it.