Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Werner Herzog shows "real life" (Siberian) in "Happy People: A Year in the Taiga"

The latest documentary by Werner Herzog  is a collaboration with Russian Dmitry Vasyukov for Studio Basselberg, “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga”. 

Herzog narrates as he shows the lives of people in a central Siberian village of Bakhtia, population 300, accessible only by bush plane or by river.  The people live in largely prehistoric conditions, in log cabins, with only snowmobiles and a few modern tools,. Maybe coop electricity.

But actually most of the film traces the life of a typical fur trapper, who often describes his daily life, in Russian (with subtitles).  He sees his village family only occasionally, with some time to teach his sons his way of life.   The film, starting in Spring, traces the way he manages his system of huts (essentially personal yurts) in a 1000 sq km area originally given to him by the Communists to hunt on in 1970. He is now about 63 but quite vigorous.  He builds everything, including his huts, traps, skis, and other infrastructure by chopping and working with the natural wood and logs in the forest.  He trains his dogs and maintains the appropriate level of emotional involvement with them.  (Again, there is a bit of “Pi” in him.)

The film moves in the sequence of four seasons, starting in spring, as was common with Disney documentaries in the 50s.  Snow stays around until early May, and he actually has to chop firewood in spring so it can dry all summer.  Summer is short, but preparations for winter, which pretty much starts in late October, are grueling. Temperature can get down to minus 50 (the movie didn’t say Celsius). 

When he goes hunting, he is on his own completely. There is no legal system, no help. There is only living, controlling a territory to feed oneself, and carry food back on a showboard to a family.  He has complete “freedom” in an otherwise previously Communist state. 
The official site from Music Box Films is here. The film was shot during the year 2010 and is only now in limited theatrical release.  I saw it at the Landmark E Street in Washington.  

The film was shot in handheld dogme digital video, and in a few scenes the resolution is not quite as sharp as one would like, given such breathtaking scenery.
One important idea not covered in the film is the possibility of methane releases from the soil with global warming, which may decrease the length and severity of winter in coming years.  Perhaps the methane issue matters more in the actual tundra. But a large methane release could lead to a runaway greenhouse effect for the whole planet, possibly (particularly if ocean methane hydrates break).  While methane has much more heat retention potential than carbon dioxide, it doesn’t last as long. 
But the people in this film don’t contribute to the problem. The rest of us do.  The fur trapper explains his simple attitude toward life's meaning, as seen through his relationships with wild animals.  He is rather like the apex predator.
Wikipedia attribution link for world map of taiga  

Visitors may want to peruse the article "Stranded on the Roof of the World" by Michael Finkel and Matthew Paley, on. p. 88 of the February 2003 National Geographic, about the Kyrgyz nomads in northeastern Afghanistan, living at 14000 feet in similar isolation. 

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