Happy People: A Year on the Taiga (Music Box Films, NR)

happypeople 75The hunters in Happy People seem more fulfilled as human beings than me or pretty much anyone I know.



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On the surface, it seems to make perfect sense that Werner Herzog’s new documentary, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, follows hunters in Siberia who live under what appear to us to be extreme circumstances, enduring endless cold weather and leaving their families for months on end to hunt enough game to feed the villagers for the better part of the year. Moreover, it seems fitting Herzog focuses on the peace and contentment of their lifestyle (not for nothing that “happy people” is given more prominence in that title than “taiga” is); one only needs to look to Herzog’s 2005 film Grizzly Man or 2007’s Encounters at the End of the World to see more examples of people living in extremely cold climes (Alaska in the former, Antarctica in the latter) and enjoying themselves immensely. (Or, for that matter, you could read Herzog’s book, Of Walking in Ice, which is his diary from his own expedition walking from Munich to Paris in the winter of 1974.) Also, he is presumably the only film director to have made a feature film on all seven continents, so he apparently isn’t afraid to tackle difficult shooting locales such as the taiga. But wait—Herzog has a co-director on Happy People, one Dmitry Vasyukov, whose name sounds suspiciously native. Is Herzog getting soft, and hiring other people to do the heavy lifting for him?

As it turns out, Vasyukov filmed a series of four hour-long documentaries about these Siberian hunters, and these pre-existing docs made it into Herzog’s hands. He loved the footage, and finagled the rights to re-edit the four hours of footage into one 90-minute documentary, and that’s what Happy People is: a re-edit of Vasyukov’s films. Additionally, Herzog added his beloved personal voiceover, ruminating on the nature of these hunters’ existences and day-to-day lives.

It might seem kind of disappointing to find out that Herzog wasn’t out there living among these Siberian hunters (and he’s of course well known for the extremes he’ll go to get the films he wants—see either Aguirre: The Wrath of God or Fitzcarraldo for that), but might I remind you that he didn’t live in Alaska with Timothy Treadwell, either; what he did with Treadwell’s footage isn’t too far off from what he does with Vasyukov’s footage here. As such, Happy People is both as satisfying and as recognizably Herzog-ian as his recent run of excellent documentaries have been, even if he wasn’t out on the taiga filming this stuff himself.

Actually, the finished product brings to mind the granddaddy of all modern documentaries, Robert Flaherty’s 1922 film Nanook of the North, which was about an Eskimo hunter named Nanook and his day-to-day lifestyle, and involved, among other things, long hunting expeditions to keep himself and his family fed for the better part of the year. Happy People focuses more on the trapping and the craft involved therein than Nanook did (and it also covers a whole year of the hunters’ lives, as the title suggests, to include the few warm summer months), but the Zen approach to what looks like unlivable conditions to many westerners is similar. The hunters in Happy People seem more fulfilled as human beings than me or pretty much anyone I know. Surely there’s a lesson to be learned here. | Pete Timmermann

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