Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov’s Happy People: A Year in the Taiga is by no means a new movie, but I just discovered it and I simply cannot stop talking about it. In it, Werner’s narrative voice works its usual magic, which is all I really should have to say, but I’ll go on. The documentary covers a year in the life of a group of men who make a living trapping in the Siberian Taiga, which would seem to most to be a less than ideal place to live. But Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov follows these men through their daily routines preparing through the short summer season for a frigid winter spent in the solitary silence of the forest.
The mosquitoes that turned back armies are repelled by homemade birch bark tar and the dogs eat from a seemingly endless supply of dried river fish; the wives bake their husbands a seasons’ worth of white bread and the children put on a cheerful Christmas play. It’s a life of extremes most of us will never come near. Herzog documents the changes that modernization has brought to the region – which seem to be relatively few, though less than positive for the native population – and in his usual german-accented voice assures us that life goes on. The visuals are striking, and the stories of these Russian men and their families will have you wondering how we city dwellers have distanced ourselves from our hunting and gathering pasts. But in the end, you’ll find the title Happy People refers not only to the heroes of the film but to those who have just finished watching it, because you can’t help but smile and wish that your father had taught you how to make your own skis out of a freshly cut elm.
Highly recommended, it’s an uplifting documentary, though laden with the intense reality of life on the fringe in an extreme climate. Netflix it up!