Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

In the heart of the Siberian Taiga, some 300 people eke out a hard living in the harsh environment and have to manufacture most of the things they use in their day to day lives. First-time documentary filmmaker Dmitry Vasyukov teamed up with Werner Herzog and spent four seasons getting to know some of these hardy fur trappers, the “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga.”

Robin:
I am not sure of the depth of Werner Herzog’s involvement in the filming of “Happy People” but newcomer Dmitry Vasyukov does a remarkable job of chronicling the life of the remote village of Bakhtia on the Yenisei River in central Siberia. There is nothing easy about life in the Taiga and the film focuses on several of the trappers vying for a living in the rugged, vast and frozen forests surrounding the tiny town.

“Happy People” is divided into the four seasons of the filmmakers’ year in the Taiga, beginning with spring. This when the hunters and the inhabitants of the town begin the cycle of the new year: hand crafting skis, carving canoes from a single block of wood (a fascinating process to watch), catching and smoking the abundant fish caught for future meals (and to feed their beloved dog companions) and preparing traps, all in anticipation of the next winter’s hunting season.

During the all too brief summer the inhabitants of Bakhtia deal with the yearly swarms of mosquitoes with homemade insect repellent treating all of the residents, huskies included. Life picks up in the town when the Yenisei thaws, with the occasional river cruise ship or a politician from far-off Moscow doing a PR visit. The hunters take advantage of the 20 hour days to repair their trapper cabins, install traps and extract pine nuts from harvested pine cones.

Autumn sees the trappers head off to the forests to prepare their traps for the fast approaching winter hunting season. “Happy People,” while focusing on the selected hunters, also gives an across the board look at the other townsfolk and their own efforts at living a hard and hardy life. Native Taigans and immigrants from outside the region are followed to get the flavor of living in the tough, beautiful, self-sufficiency demanding environ in the middle of nowhere.

“Happy People,” because of the harsh environment, should have negative viewpoints but that never happens. The hardy inhabitants love their land and their freedom and the filmmakers capture this perfectly. The quality of the video, solid behind the camera work and the dedication of all involved (and the wonderful subjects) make this an uplifting happy story about “Happy People.” I give it a B.

Laura:
Werner Herzog happened upon a friend watching four hours of film about trappers in a remote area of Siberia shot by Dmitry Vasyukov and thought it should be made into a shorter version that would reach beyond Russian speakers.  With Vasyukov's cooperation and a plea from the film's most central subject, Gennady Soloviev, to ensure that people knew they were genuinely happy and not to be pitied for their severe lifestyle, Herzog added his always welcome narration and edited the footage down, chaptering four seasons of "Happy People: A Year in the Taiga."

Cowriters (with Herzog's son Rudolph)/directors Dmitry Vasyukov and Werner Herzog chart a year with some inhabitants of Bakhta, a village only reachable by helicopter or boat (the latter only in the summer months when the river Yenisei is traversable) in the remotest center of Siberia, a region known as the Taiga.  This always fascinating account showcases men who make their livings as generations before them have, their only concessions to modern tools being the chainsaw and snowmobile.  But in following these trappers, half of the director's title is ignored - we only see women welcoming home their menfolk or in 'crowd' scenes - we hear nothing of their lives or contributions to the myriad preparations required for winter trapping.  It is possible that they were included in Vasyukov's vision and edited out by Herzog, who is obviously jazzed by men living in the wilderness with their loyal, hearty, working dogs.

But what we are left with is fascinating, thoughtful and often breathtaking.  The film's heart is trapper Gennady Soloviev, the first trapper we see.  He's caring for his dogs, explaining how one, not suitable for hunting, is a freeloader and another, the best of his type, is now retired.  He clearly loves his animals as much as he also relies on them (he declares it is impossible to be a hunter without a dog).  It is springtime and Gennady goes off to begin building his traps, using a centuries old technique.  He will build 1,000(!) by winter.  It is not made clear if the previous year's traps are reused. Without using the actual word, Gennady talks about sustainability, and how true Taiga hunters and trappers despise those too greedy to follow the rules of nature.  Here in the middle of nowhere is an environmentally sound way of life.

Summer brings mosquitos more fearsome than temperatures 50 degrees below zero or bears. We see men take breaks from building canoes (a skill you never realized you wanted to learn until you see it demonstrated here) to create natural repellant from birch bark tar.  It also brings a political campaign via boat complete with scantily clad backup singers, one that is humorously ignored.  Fall begins the stressful preparation of hunters' camps, which must be bear-proofed, repaired and stocked before winter's harsher weather.

Winter, is, of course, what the entire film has been leading up to and it is glorious and awe-inspiring.  These people work.  Vasyukov and his cameramen also take time to note the stunning beauty of red berries against the snow or cones of ice on the ends of reeds drooping into a stream like some kind of glass bell flowers.  We follow Michael Tarkovsky (a relative of the filmmaker who doubles as one of this film's camera operators), who uses less humane traps than Gennady, an issue not commented upon.  Anatoly Blume returns to his camp after a hard day in the snow to discover a tree toppled over it and his only option is to deal with it in his bone weary state.  All the men travel about 150 kilometers back to Bakhta to celebrate the New Year, one man's dog running behind his snowmobile for the entire trip.

With so much material, some of the omissions are frustrating.  It's surprising to see the people indigenous to the area, living on the sidelines even in this remote area, overwhelmed by alcoholism, much like many Native American stories.  It's even more surprising that Herzog fails to make this comparison in his narration.  But what is here is wonderful and we can feel Herzog connect to these men through his narration, especially when describing pure freedom as they go off into the wilderness.  This is the first time the Bavarian filmmaker's been given a real run for his money though - Gennady's words may be even more stirring.  When he talks about losing a dog to a bear, he just about breaks your heart.

B+
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