These days, I suspect most of us have toyed with the idea of dropping everything and moving to some remote corner of the globe where twitter can’t reach us. Personally, I’m finding the promise of isolation, of elective withdrawal and retreat, to be increasingly enticing. I live in Canada, where it’s not hard to run away to the woods. And I do. Frequently. I just got back from a week in Kootenay National Park (our parks are free this year); I was off the electrical grid, it was -20°C, and I loved every second of it.
I spend a lot of time thinking about how solitude can be a bedfellow of detachment, and I worry about how concurrently seductive and politically harmful romanticizing it can be. Withdrawal shares a family resemblance with complicity, and that’s worth noting.
That being said, elective isolation, now more than ever, is an indispensable act of self-care; be it a week, a day, or something longer. We’re currently experiencing an uncharted degree of connectivity, and in practice, at least, it is becoming more and more difficult to be truly alone. Being discerning about how we engage with news, with our peers, and with all the joy and vitriol the internet has to offer is becoming increasingly urgent.
Thinking about these things, deep in the Rockies, I watched four essential documentaries on what elective isolation can look like; representations of solitude, and what that takes.
Two Years at Sea (2011)
Ben Rivers’ film follows the messianic-looking Jake Williams as he goes about his lone existence in his remote Scottish homestead. The film is an approximation of the comfortable, quiet routine that comes with solitude — and to be enjoyed, the viewer must in turn accept this stillness. In this way, the Venn Diagram of viewers who can’t stand Two Years at Sea and who have no interest in being alone alone, is a circle.
Undoubtedly, the film languishes: in boiling water, in naps, in twine blowing in the wind. There’s no conflict, let alone context. At one point, there’s an unbroken 10 minute shot of Jake watching a fire die. It’s what Robinson Crusoe did between acts 1 and 2 — between carving a space out for himself in wilderness, and seeking out conflict when domesticity wasn’t enough.
Rivers shoots on a wind-up Bolex camera with black-and-white, 16mm film — sometimes it’s difficult to tell metal from bark, let alone what century we’re in. The soundscapes are particularly desolate, punctuated only by Jake’s whistling, hums, and rare (startling) mumbles.
Through representing Jake’s solitude for all its raw hermeticism, Rivers demands that we avail ourselves to stillness. It’s a lonely film about loneliness; a fantasy about the monotonous habit that accompanies fierce individuality. It is, admittedly, not for everyone. And that’s kind of the point.
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010)
Happy People takes us to Bakhta, a remote village in the heart of the subarctic Siberian taiga, a landmass 1.5 times the size of the United States. The village is only accessible by helicopter and when the ice of the Yenisei melts in the summer, by boat. Only 300 or so folks live in Bakhta, most of whom make their living through trapping. Director Werner Herzog, working from Russian director Dmitry Yasyukov’s TV docu-series, presents a seasonal portrait of the men who undertake and master the hard work required to survive this threatening landscape.
Admittedly, Herzog’s thesis is an idealistic one, recalling an older documentary practice: that people who live simply and honestly are fundamentally happy. The film’s (brief) treatment of the indigenous Ket people, who struggle with both alcoholism and impaired generational memory, hints that Herzog’s romanticism is, in some small way, compromised.
What ultimately makes Happy People more than just idealism is its attention to the total, demanding, and exhaustive, routine labour required to sustain self-reliance in severe conditions. The solitary independence depicted in Happy People demands industry, and perseverance; making skis, fishing for pike, prepping cabins, setting sable traps. The film goes out of its way to show that this demand is not easily met. A solitary life in the taiga is an undoubtedly difficult and effortful way to live, far from the contemplative domesticity on display in Two Years at Sea. Herzog, with all his willful admiration, suggests it’s worth it.
Alone in the Wilderness (2004)
Alone in the Wilderness follows Richard “Dick” Pronneke, a self-taught naturalist who lived in isolation for nearly 30 years in Alaska. The film is narrated, in folksy fashion, with excerpts from his journal, and the footage was shot by Pronneke himself. Prior to retiring to the remoteness of Twin Lakes, Pronneke served as a carpenter at Pearl Harbor and as a diesel mechanic and heavy equipment operator after the war ended. His skill, craftsmanship, and ingenuity are remarkable.
The film’s highlight is, without a doubt, Pronneke’s settlement and construction of his log cabin, which is now included in the National Register of Historic Places. Pronneke harvests gravel from the lake bed to make a foundation; selects, fells, and hand-cuts the logs; constructs a fireplace; improvises an ice box; and crafts tool handles, countertops, a bunk bed, a dutch door, cooking instruments, and more from scratch. While Pronneke is undoubtedly a tenacious worker, his skill is such that all indication of his craft being labor is absent. Where the craftsmanship in Happy People is presented as effortful, Pronneke’s is full of grace.
The film is a powerful exegesis on the satisfaction to be gained from bringing a job to completion rather than working on parts of things. “More working, less figuring,” Pronneke says, “why worry about something that isn’t.”
Into Great Silence (2005)
German director Philip Gröning spent six months documenting the Grande Chartreuse, a remote Carthusian monastery located deep in the French Alps that has remained closed to the public since its founding by St. Bruno in 1084. And we are very much its guests; explanations, narration, or any analytical bent are absent. Instead, we’re nudged into an active state of observation, and it’s a masterful approximation of ascetic reverence on Gröning’s part.
The film is surprisingly intimate, as Gröning shadows the monks through their day to day with an appropriate restraint: they pray, they garden, they do their laundry, they feed their cats (!!), and they pray some more. Shot in natural light, the film takes on a grounded Zurbaran-like aesthetic, to the degree that its images boarder on devotional: long, pensive stone hallways; sparkling snow-covered mountains; shuffling monks going about their business. In this way the pacing of the film is chant-like, with hypnotically meditative images punctuated with ritualistically repeating vignettes and verses (“Oh Lord, you have seduced me, and I was seduced”).
At three hours long and nearly soundless, the film is demanding. But if you let it work its magic on you, it can evoke a genuine sense of contemplative peace. Every noise, every human voice, is a gift; and in the absence of sound, every image becomes enchanted and worthy of attention.