Thursday, April 25, 2013

Movie Review: Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
Directed by: Dmitry Vasyukov & Werner Herzog.
Written by: Rudolph Herzog & Werner Herzog & Dmitry Vasyukov.

Werner Herzog is one of the mad geniuses of the cinema. Reading his autobiography, Life Itself, following his death, I was struck my an observation Roger Ebert made about Herzog – that he has never made an unworthy film, never made a film simply for commercial reasons. Ebert is correct of course – even if I haven’t loved all the Herzog films I have seen (and although I have seen many, there are many more I haven’t seen – he’s one of the most prolific filmmakers in the world). Herzog goes out and makes precisely the film he wants to make each and every time. So even if I remain unimpressed by films like My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done? or The Wild Blue Yonder, or a few others, I admire that Herzog remains true to himself. He makes the films he wants to make – you can like them or not. I don’t think he really cares.

With Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, what Herzog did was take the four documentaries made by director Dmitry Vasyukov about trappers in Siberia, and edited them together into one, coherent 90 minute film – and added his own narration, which is invaluable, because Herzog has perhaps the best voice of anyone in the world. It’s so calm and confident, and seemingly intelligent, that sometimes you miss how hilarious the narration can be – like in the wonderful documentary Encounters at the End of the World, set in Antarctica. Happy People isn’t quite on that same level – it’s more matter of fact than that. But it is gorgeous, fascinating, little documentary.

The Taiga is a huge area in Siberia, where trappers have been plying their trade for generations in pretty much the same way. True, now they use snowmobiles and chainsaws, but aside from that they pretty much go about their trade as they always have. Their traps are primitive – but they are that way because they are more effective than anything man has come up with since. They make their own skies, because doing so allows to travel greater distances with ease than factory made ones. They spend months on their own, moving from one hut to another, checking on their traps for the sable they catch, with no one but their dogs for company. And their dogs do everything for them – without the dogs, they couldn’t survive. No matter what the political situation is, it doesn’t affect these men. The most lighthearted moment comes when a politician shows up in the small village on a boat asking for re-election – and finds for the most part, no one cares, until he breaks out the flour that the villagers want.

I am fascinated by a movie like this – that shows a way of life much different than most people live. It is a simple life, but as Herzog (and the title) point out, it is a happy life –precisely the life these people want to live. They do what the want, they are experts at their craft, and have no plans on changing. There is nothing wrong with that.

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga is a simple film. The footage by Vasyukov is beautiful – especially in the winter months. And it shows us the type of people we rarely see in films. While the film does not rank among the best of Herzog’s career, it is yet another example of him doing precisely what he wants to do. How can you argue with that?

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