Sunday, September 29, 2013

Astonishing Freedom—Happy People: A Year In The Taiga

Live through a vivid, raw, and strangely happy year in remote Siberia.

DEMAND ON VIEWER: Moderate-High—Subtitled, very slow-paced. Good for watching during a retreat or vacation, when not trying to stay awake after a long day at work, or be overly stimulated
OVERALL: Highly Recommended

Werner Herzog's latest effort is one more in a line of well-crafted documentaries. For this one he and co-producer Dmitry Vasykov travel to the remote Siberian wilderness, and the village of Bakhta, to understand how its people survive the almost prehistorically harsh conditions.

The story opens in the spring, when the trappers are still digging out from under the winter's snows. We see how ingenious traps, boats, skis, and other tools are made with nothing but an axe. As the year progresses through the mosquito-laden summer and into the following fall and winter, we live through a vivid, raw, and un-retouched experience with some amazingly courageous people.
Nothing can get inland to Bakhta, except during the few short weeks when the river is free of ice in the summer. Therefore the townspeople rely on the trappers for their food. The men spend months out in a series of huts which must be maintained throughout the year. The work never stops. Yet these men are not only acceptant of this brutally hard life, they find freedom in it.

There are some very memorable scenes in this story, such as the faithful dog running throughout the night alongside the snowmobile. Dogs feature prominently in the life of the trappers, their only companions. When one of these faithful family members dies, it is a sad thing indeed. We get to hear the vulnerable tale of one such death from the main trapper character.
Another incredible visual, all the more because it is not CGI generated but actual footage, is the moving ice flow of the vast frozen river, just beyond the houses and buildings of the town. 

Roger Ebert called Herzog's voice a "tonic for the soul." Quite so. His accented cadence is almost hypnotic, suitable to the rhythm of the nature he often depicts. The experience of listening to his voice is as powerful as what he describes. You can hear a bit of what I mean by listening to the opening lines of the trailer:

This film is a tonic in more than one way—in contrast to one's own "problems," which will not seem as large after viewing—and as a way of understanding some of the primal, communal drives of the human psyche.

Like going back in time, Happy People takes us into the realm of elemental survival and the astonishing freedom that close connection to nature brings.

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