Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Happy People

Werner Herzog's "Happy People: A Year in the Taiga" is a typical entry in Herzog's recent oeuvre, a documentary exploring human strangeness in extreme conditions... in this case, a year in the lives of fur trappers in a remote part of the Siberian taiga. It is a beautiful and fascinating movie. The trappers spend some of the year in the village with their families, but they prefer solitude and living off the land in their harsh environs, especially over the long, vicious winter. That's when they trap their wild sables in a variety of simple contraptions, moving in a circuit from hut to hut across their assigned hunting territory. Solitude is not quite correct, however, because there is always a dog. The partnership between man and dog is the central relationship of the movie, and a complex one. The dogs are valued--indispensable perhaps--and, in a way, loved, but also mistreated.

The economist in me couldn't help but wonder how they do it. The trapping production process appears to be surprisingly capital intensive. The short summer is devoted to repairing and building traps, and particularly to maintaining and stocking the network of trapping huts, which are rustic but quite robust structures, built to withstand the elements. There are snowmobiles and small motorboats to buy and maintain as well. Year after year, it's a considerable investment in time and money, and blood too: the mosquitoes are, well, beyond belief. All this for the occasional frozen, somewhat bedraggled sable pelt, crushed in a simple but effective deadfall trap. They must do it for fun, not profit... how strange is that?

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