Werner Herzog's documentary brings Siberian village out of frozen solitude

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Entertainment,Movies,Kelly Jane Torrance

Every documentary could use the Werner Herzog touch. No one makes nonfiction films that are more insightful and more entertaining than the German writer-director.

His latest work, "Happy People: A Year in the Taiga," proves the point. Herzog took a four-hour made-for-Russian-television documentary on the way of life of the 300 people living in Bakhta, a village near the Yenisei River deep in Siberia, and turned it into an intense hour-and-a-half meditation on ... well, it's Werner Herzog, so it's sort of a meditation on everything.

Dmitry Vasyukov was a brave man to let Herzog distil his work and add to it his own, inimitable commentary. It does mean, however, that a lot more people will see this fascinating film about a people almost none of us will ever meet. There are only two ways to reach Bakhta: by helicopter or by boat. And you can use a boat during only one of the few summer months in which the river isn't frozen over.

On Screen
'Happy People: A Year in the Taiga'
» Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars
» Directors: Dmitry Vasyukov, Werner Herzog
» Starring: Gennady Soloviev, Nikolay Nikiforovitch Siniaev
» Rated: Not rated
» Running time: 90 minutes

We meet more than one inhabitant, but most of our time is spent -- and well spent -- with Gennady Soloviev, a Russian who went north in 1970 as a 20-year-old. As Herzog explains, Soloviev's 1,500 square kilometers were assigned to him by the Communists. "They gave me traps, advanced some money, issued some guns," the Russian remembers. He and his partner, also 20, had no radio, no stove, no winter clothes. "Just bread rusk to eat," he says. "I was lucky to have a good dog. She fed me." The Communist authorities, he says with quiet understatement, "didn't bring anything at the promised time." He was eventually left alone to track and trap: "My partner somehow didn't prove equal to the challenge."

The details are tantalizing few, though. "It's a long story, but I survived -- interestingly enough. It was not like that island on TV where they're all heroes and catch and share crabs or scorpions," Soloviev says. He's stayed in Siberia ever since, learning the techniques "honed to perfection over the centuries" in the Siberian Taiga.

The tall Russian with the thin face doesn't look like a man from another time. He wears modern camouflage below his traditional fur hat. But he lives by the old ways, which he says haven't been bettered. He spends a great deal of time finding just the right piece of wood out of which he'll make a pair of skis. "Getting around in these is sheer pleasure," he says. "You might have factory-made ones. If you and I go into the woods, you'll drop dead from fatigue after 15 kilometers. You won't be able to move a leg. Me, I'll just keep on skiing without a care in the world." He partially hollows out the trunks of trees to make what he calls "Grandfather's traps," though their originators have been dead much longer than that.

It might seem a lonely life, but for the companionship of canines. "You are no hunter without a dog," Soloviev declares. He admires one who no longer hunts, but who must have given him some good years: "a freeloader, not a real dog anymore. But he gets all the perks." An animal who is old enough to have "retired" he refers to as a "pensioner."

There's astonishing beauty in this place that would kill most of us. Herzog's careful commentary doesn't tell us what to think about it. But he does tell us what he thinks, and it's hard not to agree with his studied conclusion. As he says of these people, who, year after year, do the work that's been done year after year for centuries, they live "this kind of life of self-reliance, of complete and utter freedom, complete and utter absence of government, taxes, police, rules. They live by their own rules, but according to the dignity of nature."

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