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Happy People: A Year in the Taiga - Movie Review

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Happy People: A Year in the Taiga - Movie Review

'Happy People' Poster Art

Music Box Films

A Life In The Wilderness of Remote Siberia

With a co-director's credit for Werner Herzog, who wrote and reads the voice over narration in Happy People: A Year In the Taiga, this Russian-made documentary takes audiences to a remote region of Siberia, where it chronicles the annual work cycle of two extraordinarily self sufficient Siberian hunter-fishermen -- one of Russian descent, the other a member of a small ethnic community call the Kets -- both of whom live with their families in the tiny village of Bakhta, on the banks of the Yenisei, a river that runs through the Taiga, a huge and very sparsely populated tract of pristine Siberian wilderness.

Bakhta is so isolated that the only ways to get there are by helicopter or boat, and the latter is out of the question during most of the year, when the enduring bone-chilling, finger-freezing cold keeps the river completely iced over.

As the cameras - wielded by Russian cinematographers Alexey Matveev, Gleb Stepanov, Arthur Sibirski and Michael Tarkovsky -- document the daily activities of both men, it shows how the traditional regional skills and crafts -- spearing fish, setting simple but infallible traps, making mosquito repellent from tree bark and shaping perfect skis from tree trunks, among others -- that they've learned from their elders enable each of them to survive the harsh conditions set by nature -- the weather, the destruction of their hunting huts and other dangers imposed by obstreperous and hungry bears, and the solitude of months-long hunting expeditions on which their only companion is their dog. The skills, the film explains, are being lost as those who practice them die. The implication is that this 'happy' way of life that's so in harmony with nature will not last much longer.

This Is The Shorter Version

Actually, this 94-minute documentary feature is a condensed version of a four-hour epic that was made for Russian television by Dmitry Vasyukov, who is credited as co-director on Happy People. This version presents the men and their families as idyllically Happy People, despite the hardships they face in their daily lives. They are happy when they have enough to eat, and when the men return from months of solitude in the woods to reunite with their families for the holidays. They are happy that they are not bothered by bureaucrats and tax collectors.

Herzog's narration underscores the men's love for their self-reliant lifestyle, their work in natural surroundings and the freedom their lifestyle affords them. On screen, the men talk into the cameras about some difficulties they've had -- a beloved dog mauled and killed by a bear, a hunting hut that was invaded by a bear and had to be rebuilt quickly for shelter at nightfall before the light faded, and other such episodes. But the film never shows them in danger, nor does it capture anything happening that truly tests their mettle.

Does that mean that these Happy People endure an entire year-long cycle without experiencing anything that they and the audience) might consider as and identify to be a crisis -- an illness, for example, or an injury that occurs during a hunting run, or a period during which the yield from hunting and fishing proves to be insufficient, or what happens if they run out of essentials that they can't get from the land -- such as petrol, for example, that they must have to fuel the snowmobiles they use to navigate the frozen river and travel from hunting hut to hunting hut to check their traps, or what happens if the snowmobile breaks down.

What's the Full Story?

Of course, discarding two and a half hours of footage from the original film means a lot of the story has been lost. And, perhaps, some reality went with it.

The shortened version of the film depicts these people who subsist off the land as sort of wise-in-the-woods but naive in the ways of the world creatures who enjoy an idyllic, Walden-like existence. There's not much mention of their dealings with the outside world, except we see that they rely on the delivery of some imported products -- petrol, for example -- for their existence in the wilderness.

It's hard to believe that Happy People delivers their full story. Some research into the backstory of the making of the film convinces that it does not.

Actually, Werner Herzog never set foot in Bakhta, never visited the Taiga, never met any of the characters in this film. According to the film's press notes (which most moviegoers never see), Herzog became aware of the footage accidentally, was intrigued and, with the permission of Dmitry Vasyukov (credited as co-director on Happy People), re-cut the original film to his narration. Herzog says he'd like to spend a year with the Happy People, but has been too busy making other films.

What's wrong with that? Absolutely nothing. But it should be made clear in the film, so that viewers know that what they're getting is Herzog's secondhand interpretation of the realities of life in the Siberian wilderness.

Herzog is famous for putting his own spin on the realities of the remote and little known places he's documented in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Encounters At The End of The World and other films that are as much about his philosophical musings as they are about the places depicted. The knowledge that Herzog made this entire film in remote mode casts some question about how close he was to his other subjects, as well.

In his other films, Herzog's delivers his narration in his first person voice. Like it or not, Herzog's use of first person makes it clear to viewers that he's filtering reality for them.

Not so in Happy People. Herzog's narration in Happy People takes the tone of a reporter on the scene, a voice that allows itself opinions without using the first person. That's crass misrepresentation in a film that purports to be the truth.

Falling Short of Reality

No documentary worth its mettle purports to tell the whole truth. All films, nonfiction or narrative, are collective expressions of the director's, editor's, writer's, cinematographer's and characters' points of view. Filmmaking is a collaborative art, but most often most of the credit -- or blame -- is hung around the neck of the director, either as a garland or a noose.

What does Herzog deserve for Happy People? I'd like to say noose. But it isn't that easy. It is, after all, thanks to Herzog that the existence of these hearty folk who've inherited a survivalist way of life and manage to survive it have been brought to the world's attention. They are great characters who exemplify human fortitude, determination, cleverness and spirit. The footage used in the film -- shot without Herog's input -- captures their relationship to the pristine magnificence of their surroundings and the power of nature. For bringing these to the world's attention, Herzog gets a garland.

However, Herzog's narration of their lives, by omitting moments of extreme hardship, desperation and despair, seems to belittle their true mettle.

Back, for a moment, to those press notes -- in which co-Director Dmitry Vasyukov makes a point of mentioning that the film's subjects expressed concerns that the recut film would represent them as pitiable and backwards instead of strongly spirited, extraordinarily capable, determined and proud of their traditional way of life. Happy People doesn't demean them in that way. But it does have a sort of romanticized 'happy natives' tone to it that borders on condescension. Perhaps it's not Herzog's intention, but the film seems patronizing. And, for that: the noose.

It would be wonderful to see the full four hours of the original film, and get to know more about the fascinating people whose unusual lives are documented therein. It would also be very interesting to see how other observational filmmakers -- Marshall Curry and the Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady team come to mind because they so beautifully present compelling character-driven stories that reflect issues of epic proportions -- would handle re-cutting the original four hours of film.

The characters is Happy People and their subsistence existence in Siberia are such fascinating, compelling subjects that one can only wish that they'd been better served by the re-cut of the longer film that (hopefully, I say, because I've not seen it) shows the fuller reality of their story.

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Film Details:

  • Title: Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
  • Directors: Dmitry Vasyukov and Werner Herzog
  • Producers: Klaus Badelt, Timur Bekmambetov, Yanko Damboulev, Christoph Fisser, Werner Herzog, Robyn Klein, Thomas Nickel, Vladimir Perepelkin, Nick N. Raslan, Charlie Woebcken
  • Original Music: Klaus Badelt
  • Film Editing: Joe Bini
  • Cinematography: Alexey Matveev, Gleb Stepanov, Arthur Sibirski, Michael Tarkovsky
  • Film Editing: Juliet Weber
  • US Premiere Date: March 6, 2011 (San Francisco Green Festival
  • US Theatrical Release Date: January 25, 2013 (limited, New York)
  • Running Time: 94 mins.
  • Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
  • Production Country: Russia, Germany
  • Production Location: Siberia
  • Language: English and Russian with English subtitles
  • Production Company: Studio Babelsberg
  • Distribution Company: Music Box Films

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