What is happiness?
According to Thoreau, "Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder."
Well, according to Werner Herzog in his latest documentary, Happy People, which he co-directed with Dmitry Vasyukov, contentment can be achieved without the said butterflies. Just ask the snowbound trappers of the Siberian Taiga as they construct their lives along the Yenisei River in much the same ways folks did hundreds of year ago, with just the addition of a power saw or two.
In his trademark soothingly breathy, German-accented narration, Herzog explains, "[These men] are truly free. No rules. No taxes. No government. No laws. No bureaucracy. No phones. No radio. Equipped only with their individual values and standards of conduct."
During the spring and summer, the trappers reside in a village of 300 folks who can only be reached by helicopter or boat, and that's only for several months when the Yenisei isn't frozen. During the warmish times of the year, the menfolk build their canoes and carve their skis while growing very large vegetables that grow rather quickly, because the days often last 20 hours.
There is a downside to this season, though. There are mosquitos in Eden, hordes of them, which are somewhat repelled with a homemade tar concoction, painstakingly made from birch trees, that is rubbed onto your skin, or your fur if you bark.
But when summer ends and night lengthens, which is forewarned by local chipmunks collecting pine nuts, our bearded heroes head for the woods, each alone with a dog. And then for months in the unceasing cold, they hunt for sable and other fur-bearing creatures. So how cold is it? Herzog notes that near the end of one unusually mild December, the temperature registered at 33 degrees below zero.
Yet with unperturbed whiteness everywhere, what is there to complain about? Nothing, apparently. These virile, modest souls are some of the "few to witness the beauty of space combed in silence," Herzog avows. Agreeing, one of his subjects adds, "Every man has his own destiny, his own plan, his own territory." This ivory landscape is his. Philosophy without philosophers.
Cut down from a four-hour documentary by Vasyukov, the result is a film lacking in catastrophic tragedies of any sort (although there is a moving bear-vs.-dog tale retold) that holds you nonetheless with its raw view of lives spurning quotidian modern comforts with a vengeance.
Yet are there cracks in the joy? The few minutes of footage of the tribal folk remaining in this area show them suffering from alcoholism, limited job choices, and a loss of their ancient customs. As for the womenfolk, they are barely visible here, and the children, one thinks, would leave town in a second if exposed to the joys of Facebook and Glee. Yet the notion of a primal man released from the strictures of a society of greed and surviving with his own two hands and a canine pal in the harshest of unspoiled global landscapes in the twenty-first century elicits a sense that somehow all is not lost.
(Available on DVD, VOD, and Digital Download beginning April 23, 2013.) - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "Queer Theatre" and "Gay and Lesbian Identity in Literature" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, the New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate,and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton). He is also a member of the performance/writing group FlashPoint.