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Carving a pair of skis from a tree trunk
Carving a pair of skis from a tree trunk
A new documentary directed by Werner Herzog takes a look at a Siberian subculture that is off the grid because there is no grid.

As a film-maker, Herzog’s constant theme is Nature – the “vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger,” he once called the Ocean, but the description could apply equally well to the Siberian tundra. His new movie, “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga,” documents the lives of Siberian fur trappers who live and work in extreme conditions. (Buy it in the UK). Deep in the wilderness, far away from civilization, 300 people inhabit the small village of Bakhtia at the river Yenisei. There are only two ways to reach this outpost: by helicopter or boat. There’s no telephone, running water or medical aid. The locals live according to their own values and cultural traditions. With insightful commentary written and narrated by Herzog, Happy People follows one of the Siberian trappers through all four seasons of the year to tell the story of a culture virtually untouched by modernity. The title refers to a Herzogian definition of happiness, which is stoic at heart, about his subjects’ ability to face a hard life with fortitude, skill, endurance and a deep understanding of and respect for their hostile environment.

With few exceptions, like the use of snowmobiles, the way they work hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. Accompanied only by their loyal dogs, they trap sable, operating out of remote cabins they build and laboriously maintain.

It’s a do-it-yourself world that Herzog clearly admires – much of what we see is the men performing the tasks that enable them to survive. It’s riveting to watch the film’s main subject, a lean, bearded fellow named Gennady Soloviev, use a hatchet to carve himself a pair of skis from a log. We also learn about the arts of ice fishing, making mosquito repellent out of bark and constructing traps that will survive winters of 50 below.

The movie is exceptional in Herzog’s canon because he didn’t film it himself. He took an existing, four-hour documentary made for Russian TV by Dmitry Vasyukov, cut it to 94 minutes (working with his usual editor, the highly esteemed Joe Bini) and added narration.

There is intense, harsh beauty in many of the scenes, and it’s impossible to watch the film without sharing Herzog’s deep, genuine liking for his subjects. The filmmaker has stated many times that he doesn’t understand irony. When he says these people are happy, he means it.

US buyers should note that the disc is “Region 2” (e.g. South Africa) as stated on the actual Amazon purchase page. The disc is also PAL, not NTSC. To play on a PC (in the States, anyway), one has to change the DVD drive settings from Region 1 to Region 2, and there is a very limited number of times one can change the drive’s region setting without having to buy a new drive.

In English and Russian with English subtitles. (Not rated. 94 minutes.)

Buy our book - OFF THE GRID - a tour of American off-grid places and people written by Nick Rosen, editor of the off-grid.net web site

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