Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
Directors: Dmitry Vasyukov, Werner Herzog

Growing up in Alaska, I watched the documentary Alone in the Wilderness, dozens of times in boyhood admiration of Dick Proenneke and his unlimited resourcefulness. Proenneke comes to Alaska in his retirement, with money in the bank and a long list of skills. He builds handles for tools which he later uses to build a log cabin to live in. He hunts, fishes, traps, and plants a small garden to subsist. Basically, he lives off the land to the best of his ability, while having a cushion of cash in the bank. But the stars of the documentary, Happy People, cast shadows over Proenneke for various reasons, some of which I will go into in the following essay.

Legendary director and filmmaker, Werner Herzog, teams up with Dmitry Vasyukov to tell the story of the residents of Bakhtia, a small village nestled beside the Yenisei River deep within the Siberian Forest. The film crew follow the people of Bakhtia during the four seasons as they live in the same way their ancestors have lived for centuries. By fishing, trapping, hunting, and growing food, the villagers do not merely survive the extreme seasons, but they thrive.

From hand dug canoes to homemade birch bug dope, hand crafted log cabins to homemade skis; the stars of the film are talented, capable, and brave. The film crew does an incredible job of filming the trappers and their dogs as they traverse hundreds of miles of difficult landscapes on snowmachine and skis. We watch as the men overcome hardships that would probably kill the typical person, from rebuilding a log cabin in subzero temperatures damaged by a fallen tree, to navigating rocky rivers in small boats loaded with supplies. The film crew uses several techniques to bring the story into the viewer’s heart. They zoom in closely on people’s faces to reveal every line of hard-earned wisdom. They use the same technique to show the animals the men work with, whether pike, saber, or sled-dog- the close-up shows the realness of the situation. Landscape views and birds eye lenses show vast wilderness and the miniature size of man in the backcountry. These shots make the viewer realize the remoteness of the area and how small one human life is in the grand scheme of Earth’s existence. The lighting throughout the movie was au natural, which was appropriate for such a natural lifestyle. From an oil lamp flame as the only source of light in a trapper’s cabin to a cloudy sky when the local politician shows up on a ferry with bags of food to buy the villager’s vote. How the film crew kept the batteries warm, equipment dry, and microphones in the right place to capture such footage during such extreme conditions is beyond my comprehension. But they nailed it.

So why is the film titled Happy People, and what do the directors propose to the viewer about happiness?

The villagers in Bakhtia seemingly work hard every day, all year – well into old age, which seems counterintuitive to many modern lifestyles. Many westerners, which I categorize as Western Europeans and Americans, work stagnant jobs indoors and use their free time after work to workout at gyms while striving to hit certain heart-rate goals, bench press marks, and mileage plans. On weekends and nights, they might drive out to the mountains or trails for a ski. They tend to work a set schedule, whether it be from 9-5, 8-4, or somewhere in there, and spend their evenings in front of a television (probably with a phone in hand) watching the latest show. If not, they’re probably gaming. They do this for forty plus so years until they are finally able to retire, (if they survive) when they can officially sit around doing nothing without feeling guilty. But by this point, many Westerners are obese with high blood pressure, hypothyroidism, weak bodies, and a long list of prescribed medications. So they basically work their entire life with an end goal in sight, and when they reach it- they are too out of sorts to enjoy it. Not to sound dismal, but it’s the harsh reality for a lot of people. But not all…

There are certain places in this world known as Blue Zones where the highest percentage of centenarians live, people over 100 years old. People in Blue Zones have certain similarities that keep them healthy and alive. They work every day until death, live in a tight-knit community, stay close with family, eat a plant-based diet, and practice some kind of spirituality. By utilizing every one of the five factors, the Blue Zone residents are happier and healthier than the average Jack or Jill, which provides more of a reason to live a long life. Happiness often equals long life. Now, I cannot say whether the villagers in Bakhtia live to be centenarians, but I will say that many of them seem happy right where they are, doing exactly what they are doing.

Perhaps happiness is not the Western dream, perhaps the Western dream is achievement, success, fame and fortune. Perhaps directors, Herzog and Vasyukov, are subtly telling us that we need to leave our desks, ditch the classrooms, stop worrying about money, quit striving for stagnancy, and go outdoors to use our bodies and minds like our ancient ancestors from hundreds of years past. Perhaps by being more closely tied to our actual environments, we will never need to retire—but will in fact live a life of retirement. In the end, we will be happy people instead of be striving to be happy people.

I asked a Junior the other day in class, “Who are some role models that you and your friends look up to?” He hesitated for a few minutes before apprehensively saying, “Unfortunately, Mr. Stark, I can’t think of any role models. It seems to me that everybody my age looks up to people who are rich and famous. We don’t look up to people who are doing the right thing, we just look up to people who have the right things.” Unfortunately, I believe this to be very true in the younger generations today.

Perhaps films like Happy People provide heroes for young men and women to follow. Perhaps we are all role models in some sense, providing an example of what to be, or not to be.

What kind of role model are you? A happy one?

Published by secretgardenalaska

Best friends raising two daughters off-grid in a remote area of Alaska. We grow food, write stories, make jewelry, and live a sober life.