When one thinks of a movie that appeals to sportsmen the first thing that comes to mind is a movie about doing something for sport, such as hunting or fishing for trophy examples of a species—perhaps something like Gordon Eastman’s High, Wild and Free. Happy People: A Year in the Taiga is not about hunting for sport; it is about people who live a self sufficient lifestyle and who hunt, fish, and trap to survive—more along the lines of Richard Proenneke’s Alone in the Wilderness.
I think a lot of sportsmen have a soft spot for the lifestyle of self-sufficient people—the people who buy very little and do their best to provide for themselves and make do with what they have. If this applies to you at all, you will thoroughly enjoy Happy People: A Year in the Taiga.
The movie follows a village of people who live in the Russian Taiga and focuses on how they provide for themselves over the course of a year. More specifically, the movie follows the men of the village—who are trappers—and their yearlong preparation for the sable trapping season.
The movie starts in the late winter, after the trapping season is over, and progresses through the seasons until the following winter, when the trapping is in full swing. Over the course of the year we see the work that must be done in each season to prepare for the winter hunt; including building skis, repairing cabins, building traps, and catching fish. We also get a glimpse at politics and family life in the Taiga.
The village is populated mostly with Russians who came from the eastern part of the country several decades ago to trap for the government. However, we also get a quick glimpse at the lives of the native people of the Taiga as well.
The look at the natives’ story is a depressing one, as alcoholism and laziness run rampant through their village and destroys their society from the inside. In an interesting moment of self-examination, the men of the society discuss why they have become so lazy and lost the skills of their ancestors. One man is eager to blame the Russians because they are the ones who introduced vodka, but another man is insistent that the blame lies with the natives themselves for allowing the vodka to corrupt them.
The examination of the native people is brief and is used as a contrast to the lives of the Russians, who are hard working, skilled, and genuinely happy.
I went into this movie thinking that the best parts would be the scenes of the trappers at work setting traps and collecting their furs, but I was wrong. The scenes of the trappers at work are still excellent and make the movie worth watching on their own, but the true beauty of this movie is found when the trappers stop working and speak.
The trappers seem eager to share their view of the world with the camera and we learn about their opinions on everything from dogs to hunting and trapping ethics. It is these introspective moments that are the highlight of the movie for me. The men speak with a clarity of thought that only those who have spent most of their lives alone can. They have had decades of time alone to hone their thoughts and words into a consistent philosophy of life and they are ready and willing to share it with the audience.
As the title of the movie suggests, these people are truly happy. Although they live in a very harsh environment with little in the way of modern conveniences, the movie is not about their struggle to survive, but their sheer joy at the freedom their lifestyle permits them. All of the hunters express their love for their chosen line of work and the freedom they have found.
It is this sentiment that makes Happy People: A Year in the Taiga a great movie for sportsmen. We may not live a subsistence lifestyle or get to spend every waking hour preparing for the hunting season, but when fall rolls around and we get to hit the hunting fields we can feel what the people of the Taiga feel—the freedom that comes from providing for oneself and of being in the outdoors.
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga is available to stream on Netflix and I highly recommend that you set aside an hour and a half to watch it.