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Life Arts    H4'ed 3/9/13

Film Review--Werner Herzog's HAPPY PEOPLE: A YEAR IN TAIGA: Details of the Good Life in a Frozen Shangri La

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(Article changed on March 10, 2013 at 12:52)

(Article changed on March 9, 2013 at 17:53)


Winter  wilderness
Winter wilderness
(Image by Nomadic Lass)
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Winter wilderness by Nomadic Lass
Would you believe  that there are areas in the world seemingly untouched as of yet by global warming, and unconcerned about the prospect? 

     This portrait of a miniature civilization is structured around an interview of a Siberian (of Russian extraction and Russian-speaking) trapper,Gennady Soloviev and some of his contemporaries, as well as a cameo of the village's underclass, the Ket people, an indigenous group dying out. Their last moribund dowager will take with her the hereditary technique of making doll-fetishes sacred to her people. Her house even catches fire, so that the dolls burn, but ultimately and slyly she reveals one that somehow survived. (As of 1979, 670 people spoke their language, an "isolate" remaining from a former group called Yenesie-Ostyak. In this film, the Ket comprise a pitiful clump, I believe all male, chopping wood and throwing it onto the back of a dump truck for pitifully low wages).

     But these Asian-looking people are presented only in passing.

     Herzog's focus is the 24/7 subsistence-dominated lifestyle of the totally isolated Russians of the central Siberian village of Bakhtia, all three hundred of them accessible by boat in the summer and helicopters year round, who find contentment in building every element in their lifestyle from scratch--animal traps, canoes, trappers' hovels that shelter them in the -50 degrees Fahrenheit, lengthy winters. Might they have learned these skills from the Ket? One of them is shown constructing a canoe for the "newcomers." Gennady  tells the producers that he's been in the Siberian Taiga since 1970.

     Free time is rare; true to the Russian tradition, the people celebrate [a secular brand of] Christmas on what we call Epiphany, the "last day of Christmas," January 6. The children drape themselves in glitter and move with music in a hand-built community room, the only public facility presented. There are no post offices, convenience stores, restaurants, or churches. There is no government except for a campaigner singing off a boat in the summer to solicit votes--of entertainment value to the children, whose parents have better things to do.

     There are no taxes.

    The trappers come home to celebrate the New Year--reunions with family are poignant--and leave after Christmas.

     No dogsleds though. The one modern convenience is snowmobiles; the faithful dogs run alongside voyages as lengthy as 75 miles without stopping. I did notice some electric lighting in the hall of the Christmas celebration, which the filmmaker did not emphasize.

     Winter is spent trapping--mainly small furry creatures like the ermine, found frozen and bent in half, whose value, Gennady laments in one of his few allusions to life outside of Bakhtia, has decreased due to excessive, astronomical inflation. Winter is generous to the Bakhtians, with copious supplies of fish, especially large pike, immediately accessible beneath the thick ice of the Yenisei River. Summer is the time for hoarding and preparing winter provisions, which consist mainly of fish and some wild fowl; no gardens are evident. Nor are swimsuits. The people wear some sort of outwear even under sunny skies that last 20 hours a day.

     The English-speaking narrator's voice is plaintiff and condescending--nothing unusual for this film genre. These people probably recapitulate life during the Ice Age [yes, there were humans who weathered this grim era--did they know it was grim?], he says.

     As we take in the joy of a subsistence-dominated lifestyle, I wonder if the producers were more interested in the indigenous, displaced Ket, victims of this microscopic imperialism. I was. The material above about the Ket is taken from a language list I edited for Oxford University Press more than a decade ago. Among these lists that comprise the 6800 languages of the world, some of them have died out since then. There would be dialects or tongues spoken by one survivor, or five, or ten, or one hundred.

     But how did I get to this digression?

     Because, though reviewers call this a beautiful portrait of the simple life amid scenery to die for, the Ket steal the show. Because Herzog displays their remarkable lifestyle  co-opted.

     I like to believe that Herzog and colleagues portrayed them just long enough to break our hearts. Methods and primitive technologies date back centuries and sometimes, the producers note, millennia. The technologies, though mostly wooden--a metal trap I recall from the fifties is modern in this context--came from somewhere, from people used to inhabiting this land.

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Marta Steele is an author/editor/blogger who has been writing for since 2006. She is also author of the 2012 book "Grassroots, Geeks, Pros, and Pols: The Election Integrity Movement's Nonstop Battle to Win Back the People's Vote, (more...)

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