Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Penny Thoughts ‘13—Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2013) ***

NR, 90 min.
Directors: Dmitry Vasyukov, Werner Herzog
Writers: Werner Herzog, Dmitry Vasyukov, Rudolph Herzog
Narrator: Werner Herzog

Happy people live in the Russian area known as Siberia Taiga. This fascinating documentary is brought to you in part by filmmaker of new images extraordinaire, Werner Herzog. “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” follows two professional trappers who live in the town of Bakhta, a small village along the Yenisei River. The river is frozen for ten months out of the year. The only other way to access the town from the outside is by helicopter. So, isolation is a way of life for these people.

The film meticulously shows us the annual routine of the trappers, from the spring preparations for the next hunting season, to the summer festivities of the town’s people and more hunting preparation by the trappers. And, the mosquitoes. If you think you’ve been in a place with massive mosquito population, you have no idea. It shows us the re-freezing of the river in the fall months. And finally, the long winter hunt.

“Without a dog, you are not a hunter,” says one of the trappers, who describes the delicate relationship a hunter must have with a good dog. The dogs are both utilitarian and personal for the men who spend half their lives in the wilderness alone. Their “happy” lives are very utilitarian. So much time is spent doing their own work on everything from building multiple cabins for their hunting, handcrafted traps out of the very forest, even a pair of Nordic-style skis. It makes you realize what kind of innovation we were filled with when we had to make everything ourselves.

I will say, this does not feel like a Werner Herzog documentary. Perhaps that’s because it’s co-directed by Dmitri Vasyukov. It doesn’t have the despair that Herzog usually imbues upon his subjects. These men are just doing their thing. They aren’t fighting some inner urge or conflict. It plays more like an information doc than Herzog’s typical psychological dissections. Certainly it gets into these men’s heads, but their aims are simple survival, and that’s something they know better than a true Trekker knows Star Trek. And, Herzog’s thoughtful narration guides the study in his unique tone. It’s worth the knowledge it has to lay on you.

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