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Calling Happy People: A Year in the Taiga a Werner Herzog film is something like calling the dozen 2012 books with James Patterson’s name on them novels actually written by James Patterson. It simply isn’t so. But in this case, the end product isn’t some fake ground out by subordinates. It’s a Herzog film Herzog just happened not to have shot.
Herzog came on board as a co-director only after all of this arresting documentary’s footage of life in Siberia had been captured. The story goes that Herzog caught a glimpse of it at a neighbor’s house. Impressed by the subarctic landscapes, both spare and grand at once, and the not-quite-of-this-century life of the lead subject, the stoic trapper Gennady Soloviev, Herzog tracked down Dmitry Vasyukov, who shot the footage. Herzog’s offer: to take the four hours of finished film and cut a movie out of it.
That’s not far from what the craftsmen Vasyukov has filmed do to Siberia’s trees: They laboriously fashion traps, canoes, skis, and even repellent for the mosquitoes that percolate about each body in the summer like hiccup bubbles around comic strip drunks. Vasyukov accepted, and here we have Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov’s Happy People. If that’s what it takes to get this remarkable footage onto screens worldwide, so be it, and let’s applaud Herzog for using his name for good.
Happy People cycles us through one year in the life of a trapper in the Siberian town of Bakhta, population 300. We follow Soloviev through the forested vastness as he putters over the frozen Yenisei River, a husky leashed to his snowmobile. It’s spring. Soloviev checks his traps, explains how to select wood for ski making, tells us how there’s easy game to be had because the crust atop the snowdrifts isn’t strong enough for moose to walk on without falling through. These scenes will inspire many viewers to imagine a go at this fat-of-the-land life. Building a trap for sable, Soloviev explains that he’s doing it the same way that his Siberian grandparents had; other than that snowmobile, a chain saw, and the plastic he wraps around trees to keep mice from getting at the food he stores up in the boughs, he could be toiling under the rule of the czars.
Then comes the summer with its bounty: fish, vegetables, daylight for 20 hours at a time. Happy People‘s structure is that of 1,000 nature documentaries, but its immersive patience is rare, as is its commitment to showing us the flat taiga forest as its residents see it. Instead of sweeping vistas, seen from the eye of God or Richard Attenborough, Vasyukov gives us what Soloviev and his fellow trappers see—and have to deal with. The Yenisei thaws, the current takes hold, and fishermen have to tug their dugouts against it with ropes. We’re shown a reindeer swimming across, its mighty antlers just dipping into the water. The moment reads at first as an establishing shot, or stock footage. But then there’s a ruckus, and a dog splashes into the water, and the camera turns just enough for us to see that we’re actually looking out from Soloviev’s canoe. That reindeer had just been passing, and now it’s being hunted.
Herzog narrates. Doing so, the great German director gets to say the kinds of things viewers of his previous films—Woyzeck, Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World—imagine he’s probably always saying, such as “All provisions here must be secured against bears.”
The year passes quickly, with festivals in town, a harvest, and preparations for the long winter, when the needle drops down to 50 below zero. The most interesting passages concern work—the process of splitting a tree—and dogs, who are never just companion animals. Soloviev complains about a “freeloader” dog who no longer works; another old dog he likens to a “pensioner” and promises “I’ll keep feeding him as long as he is alive,” which to Western ears sounds like what you’re just supposed to do. Later, displaying little emotion but apparently shaken, Soloviev tells a heartbreaker of a story about his favorite dog going up against a bear.
Soloviev’s world is presented simply, with little comment, at a pace in which viewers can sink in it and feel the place. Vasyukov’s digital photography is somewhat muddy, with objects and creatures blurring against the backgrounds. This is especially apparent toward the end, when winter has hit and Soloviev, gathering trapped sable, picks his way though snow-bent branches and harsh white horizons. A yellowish aura surrounds him at times, a testament to the expenses that were spared. It’s fitting that this film of people making do with what they have should itself look somewhat humble, without lyricism, a work not of beauty but of work—which is the thing that makes it beautiful, no matter who directed it.