You Do It Right, Your Dog Loves You
“If you ask me, industry and perseverance is at the top of the agenda.” At work, making his way through a snowy wood, Gennady Soloviev pauses. Tall, gaunt, and bearded, he’s attended by his beloved and robustly enthusiastic dogs as he walks. He goes on, “Making a few coins at any price,” he says, cheating by setting up traps during a thaw, leads to the trapping of “pregnant females.” It sounds bad and what’s more, it’s bad for business. “We despise this kind of trapper,” Gennady sums up.
Gennady is, of course, a trapper, as well as the subject of a Russia-made documentary, refitted by Werner Herzog for wider distribution, under the title Happy People: A Year in the Taiga. That is, Herzog has scripted narration, which he reads in voiceover. The effect recalls the sort of documentary that Herzog makes when he’s collecting and framing the footage (as for Into the Abyss) or when he’s assembling someone else’s footage in careful articulation with his own (Grizzly Man), Herzog’s documentaries are at once decidedly individual, in the sense that he speaks his mind and challenges viewers, and also wide-ranging, in subject matter and also in their potential effects on definitions of the genre.
If Happy People isn’t going to unmoor what anyone thinks of documentary, it does raise questions about how documentary do their work. On its face, the film is an abridged version of a four-hour opus directed by Dmitry Vasyukov, 94 minutes of interviews and observational footage, revealing the inhabitants of a remote region of Siberia called the Taiga. In this, the film is conventional ethnography, with the camera intruding minimally but visibly, and the speakers sharing their lives with their visitors, addressed directly on camera. In the isolated village of Bakhta, winters are unforgiving and daily existence arduous, and yet, the film submits, the people who live along the river Yenisei are “happy,” dedicated to traditional ways of life and work.
In addition to the trapper Gennady, the film—shot by Alexey Matveev, Gleb Stepanov, Arthur Sibirski, and Michael Tarkovsky over a year—follows the experiences of hunter-fishermen Nikolay Nikiforovitch Siniaev, one of the only remaining members of the aboriginal Ket people, a hunter and fisherman who demonstrates how to make a canoe from a birch tree, as Herzog notes Nikolay’s importance for sustaining a culture that’s slipping away as you watch it. Herzog’s voice is striking in all contexts, of course, but here his insistence on the happiness afforded by simple patterns and lack of options, as well as the importance of preserving such ancient practices, is as much a creative choice as any image or edit might be. Trappers t work, he says, “become what they essentially are, happy people, accompanied only by their dogs, they live off the land, they are completely self-reliant. They are truly free, no rules, no taxes, no government, no laws, no bureaucracy no phones no radio equipped only with their individual values and standard of conduct.”
Whether this is Gennady’s sentiment or Herzog’s is hard to say, though the shots of gorgeous “nature” might make it convincing in either case. Herzog’s narration, aided by the film’s imagery, tells a story, sometimes in conjunction with Gennady and Nikolay, sometimes in some subtle tension, most often as a kind of instruction to viewers who will never have the Russian villagers’ experience.
Does it matter that Herzog also did not have this experience, that he didn’t travel to Bakhta or speak with the men whom he characterizes so colorfully? Even as he might seem to be describing what you see, Herzog’s voice has its own effect. During an interview with a war veteran who must pause to gather himself, Herzog not so helpfully remarks that the man is “overwhelmed by memories of the war, he can no longer speak.” You know this, but as Herzog says it, the scene takes on a different sort of drama, not more or less, really, but different, interpreted and named.
It’s this process of interpretation that most vividly characterizes Herzog’s documentaries, his explicit address to viewers and also to his subjects, whether they’re in conversation with him or not (the case of Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man may be the most provocative, as the subject is dead, a concept and loss that Herzog contemplates repeatedly in the film). Here the interpretation may be based on access to more footage than you see, but you can’t know that either. Herzog responds to what’s on screen, celebrating and lamenting, engaging (seemingly, anyway) and explicating.
When Gennady interprets his own circumstance, and the trappers who cheat, he lays out a respect for the old ways, and the morality traditionally attached to them. As he argues for the value of what he does and the way he does it, the film illustrates his story. It also confirms Herzog’s story. Both men are artists, both share their views and their labors. And this may be the most stirring insight made visible in Happy People, the work of documentary making, revealed here as related to the process of making choices to shape any document, any observation, any interpretation.