We’re fascinated by life on the fringe. And we tend to think our fascination is innocent, sometimes even going so far to say, “Man, that would be the life. Living off the land. Eating what you kill. Building fires. Drinking fresh goat’s milk.” But there’s the safety of our urban habitat, which — in our defense — is what modernity drives us toward, so there’s nothing to do but be fascinated by life on the fringe. It’s not necessarily a simpler life, but it is a life without art and philosophy.
But there’s also a strong hint of condescension in our fascination. We like to ignore it, because we’re fearful of being caught thinking ourselves “better than,” but it’s there. So, as we say, “Man, that would be the life,” and so forth, we’re also saying, “But they don’t have things like public transit and Ingmar Bergman retrospectives,” as if these things are desirable or indicate high culture.
When someone, under the guise of anthropology or journalism, goes out to document this life on the fringe, there is a hint of exploitation there. Think of the documentaries about the Amish, or the lost tribes of such-and-such. I don’t believe I’m the only one who experiences guilt watching these. That could be my vestigial Protestantism, but when I watch docs of this breed, I suspect that I’m going to somehow get caught thinking the things I’m thinking: that my condescension — which I hate admitting but am going to admit anyway — will be uncovered.
As such, those directing fringe-life documentaries, in order to be successful, need to walk a thin line, using a method that can’t be taught. You either have it, or you don’t. Enter, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
The documentary was “directed” by Werner Herzog. Those familiar with Herzog’s fascination of life on the fringe could probably guess “Herzog” after viewing two or three scenes. Much like his Grizzly Man, Happy People was shot by someone else, then edited and narrated by Herzog. But, unlike Grizzly Man, Happy People isn’t made from found footage, but rather, footage assembled from four documentaries shot by Russian videographer Dmitry Yasyukov documenting, well, life in the Taiga.
The Taiga, in Siberia, is twice as big as the continental United States but has around 1% of the population. It’s gigantic, foreboding, ugly, mean, and unforgiving: nature in a fairly virgin form. The town, and one of the subjects of the documentary, is home to 900 people, and is only accessible by helicopter, or else by boat a few months out of the year, when the river isn’t frozen. The film’s other subjects — the hunters, the native people, the dogs, the mosquitos, the fish — paint a vivid and kind picture of life in the Taiga in a dry way, without any hints of condescension or fascination. Happy People is a portrait. The few modern amenities the people have — snowmobiles, chainsaws, radios — remind you that we’re in the “present,” but there’s a hint of the ancient here as well, like when one of the native villagers goes through the process of shaping a canoe out of the tree. That man is not making art to be strung to the ceiling in a Brooklyn gallery. He’s surviving.
The irony here is that this village exists because of modernity — its first hunters were given tracts of land and sent by the Soviet regime. As so-called modern culture has progressed, life in the village, much like the land, is frozen.
Herzog scores again. But when has he ever missed?
(I should also mention that one of the hunters in the movie is the son of Andrei Tarkovsky. Herzog does not explore this, but maybe he shouldn’t.)