Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

Gennady Soloviev

Michael Tarkovsky

Germany  (90 mi)  2010  d:  Werner Herzog        co-director:  Dmitry Vasyukov

You see that everything is going forward as it should. It gives you a sense of a job being done. And it is not you who are doing it, but you still feel a part of it.                   —Gennady Soloviev, Russian hunter and fur trapper

They live off the land and are self reliant, 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.                   —Werner Herzog, narrator

This is a contender for the greatest snow footage ever captured on celluloid, especially given the documentary style realism following a Russian (Gennady Soloviev) and his indigenous friend, a pair of hunters living in the remote wilderness of the Taiga forest in the heart of Siberia, a region so vast that it covers a territory larger than the entire United States  The nearest town is the indigenous village of Bakhtia on the Yenisei River, a community of 300 people, where there are no connecting roads, so the only way in or out is by helicopter or by boat in the few summer months where the waterways are not frozen. The footage was originally compiled by Dmitry Vasyukov from four hour-long documentaries shown on Russian television, focusing his cameras on the rugged individualism of Gennady Soloviev, a Russian fur trapper who has been hunting in this isolated wilderness for thirty years, as he was originally hired by the Soviet government to work as a hunter for the State.  After the fall of communism and the break-up of the Soviet empire, he simply continued his established lifestyle, “You can take everything from the man, everything, but you can't take his craft,” hunting about 1000 square miles of pristine wilderness in the Taiga forest, where it takes a day and a half riding on a snowmobile to get from one end to the other, so he constructs cabins stocked with provisions along the way.  The photography is as stunning as anything you’re ever likely to see, shot by a collective of Russian cinematographers, including aerial, underwater, and cinéma vérité techniques from Alexey Matveev, Gleb Stepanov, Arthur Sibirski and Michael Tarkovsky, a relative of the infamous Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, all of whom are wilderness experts themselves.  The film recalls Werzog’s own ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD (2007) and is comparable to Dick Proenneke's ALONE IN THE WILDERNESS (2004), another made-for-TV documentary that shows how a man built his own log house in the Alaskan wilderness by himself and survived the first winter alone, where his exemplary survival skills allowed him to live for another thirty years or more in the remote wilds of Alaska. 

Herzog discovered the film at a friend’s house in Los Angeles, becoming obsessed with the intimate beauty and intense individualism of surviving in such harsh elements, where it routinely gets 50 below zero in the wintertime, much as he was once struck by Timothy Treadwell's uniquely personal footage of Alaskan grizzly bears, the subject of GRIZZLY MAN (2005), one of Herzog’s most compelling films.  In each film, Herzog works with footage he did not capture himself, as he never traveled to Siberia or interviewed any of the subjects, but he trimmed the film down to 90-minutes and added his own narration, where it’s impossible not to feel Herzog’s own adrenaline racing when he expresses how these men live outside the laws of man, “No rules, no taxes, no government, no laws, no bureaucracy, no phones, no radio, equipped only with their individual values.”  This is Herzog’s view of heaven on earth, where a man is truly free to live a life as he alone chooses, living completely off the land, unencumbered by national boundaries, petty bureaucracies or Party rules, currency and exchange rates, language deficiencies, or any other human limitations other than his own.  In fact, the biggest problem here is that Herzog has too much of a good thing, where the material is so in synch with his own thinking that he never develops a conversation with any of the characters or expounds on the material, as he does, for instance, with countering Treadwell’s views of humanizing wild animals, treating them like household pets instead of the dangerous creatures they are, becoming a film as much about Treadway as it is grizzly bears.  In contrast, Herzog never questions anything Gennady does, treating him like a saint in the wild, exactly the kind of person Treadway thought he was, where we hear how Gennady nearly lost his life to an attacking bear, losing two of his dogs in the process.  But to hear him describe it so matter of factly, where every facet of life is broken down to precisely recalled details, one wonders about the effects of remote emotional isolationism when one has no other human interaction for months on end, year after year, where in the enormity of solitude the rules of God and man stop applying to your existence.

Gennady admits the difficulty of getting through that first Siberian winter alone when he was literally dropped in the middle of nowhere with only what he could carry on his back.  Over time, he has been able to add a stove, a chainsaw, a snowmobile, and kegs of oil, not to mention time to train his own dogs, an essential component to any hunter’s survival.  He does elaborate on his personal ethics on killing animals, finding it more of a sporting chance with hunting than when he previously raised cattle for slaughter, where he prefers living by one’s wits.  “In the Taiga, the wild animal knows that no good can come from me, man. Here it’s about who outsmarts whom.”  Gennady acknowledges a special relationship with animals, claiming he despises those who beat their dogs when training them not to go after the food set in the traps, which goes against every hunter’s instincts, and instead he builds traps just for dogs, where the unpleasantness of the experience teaches them not to try that again.  This teaches a dog intelligence instead of fear of man.  Gennady comes across as deeply reflective and philosophical, where he does appear to be an example of some kind of idyllic utopian ideal, in balance with the natural world around him.  But then, every New Years, the hunters come in out of the cold and spend a few days with their families, including the Russian celebration of Christmas, which falls on January 7th.  As we see the children dressed up in colorful costumes for a town gathering, all behaving with the spontaneous unpredictability of children, you can just feel the awkward uncomfortableness these hunters must feel having to be social, making small talk with their neighbors, chatting about each other’s children and grandchildren, whose names they may not even recognize, as opposed to the name of every one of their dogs.  It’s a different setting, the land of human beings as opposed to the tall trees, and one where only a scant amount of time is spent before they race back out into the wild, where their dogs can once more run free, chasing whatever animals they please, including (unsuccessfully) a reindeer swimming in the river or (more successfully) a Russian sable hiding inside a hollowed out log, and hunters are equally in tune with the world around them, told using the cycle of seasons.  As they have been doing for centuries, the daily routines are unchanged, where Gennady can be seen making homemade ski’s from tree trunks using only a sharp hatchet and a wooden wedge, building canoes, constructing or repairing his wooden huts, designing infallible traps, making homemade mosquito repellant, spearing fish, or properly storing food.  The outdoor visual splendor is simply astonishing and dramatically overwhelms Herzog’s meager narrative input, where we never know what we’re missing in the 2 and ½ hours of cut footage, but who will ever get an opportunity to spend this kind of guided tour through the mystical landscapes of the Siberian forests?  

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