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Friday, 08 March 2013 11:00

'Happy People: A Year in the Taiga' reveals a way of life in Siberia

'Happy People: A Year in the Taiga' reveals a way of life in Siberia
Written by Martha K. Baker
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About this Media...

  • Director: Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov
  • Dates: Opened March 8, 2013

"Happy People: A Year in the Taiga" might seem terribly exotic, even a bit off-putting in its foreignness, but it is very seductive.

That quality is more attributable to the subjects than to the documentarians, but they are the ones who landed us in this strange world of snow and traps and living history. Werner Herzog, who created the 3-D documentary of the Chauvet cave, crafted "Happy People" from the documentary series on television by the Russian Dmitry Vasyukov.

The Taiga, a subarctic forest, sprawls all over Siberia. The film's subtitle refers to a year in this cold place, thus the film about a village of 300 cold souls is divided into the four seasons. Technically, however, summer and spring are so short that winter is the defining season. Spring, still white with snow, includes two holidays: May 1 is Labor Day and May 9 is Victory Day from World War II. Herzog, in one of his annoying voice-overs, observes that a veteran being interviewed is so overwhelmed by memories of war that he can no longer speak -- as if we cannot see he's crying.

Summer, for all its greenness, is a time of biting mosquitos. Summer holds days, each with 20 hours of sunshine, days for harvesting produce to can for the winter. Fall is a time to sing a paean to the sharp ax, for it's a time to cut wood and stack it several stories high.

Winter, when the temperature ices down to 50 degrees below zero, is the time for trappers to go off alone to trap. They have prepared and repaired their woodland huts, sharpened their knives, built their traps and skis, hoisted the dried food into trees away from mice, and cut logs with wedges and clubs. The trappers describe their work as repetitions of their grandfathers' ways. They say that greed is the trapper's worst enemy and that their dogs are the most important members of the party: one trapper never lets his dog inside because that's what softies do; another trapper rides his snowmobile home in January for Christmas but his dog runs the entire way, miles and hours of running to get home.

Herzog and Vasyukov make beautiful use of helicoptered shots with wide snowscapes. Their underwater shots are lovely. They move close in to an old woman's turtle face. They film the night runs on snowmobiles, but neither filmmaker explains where the fuel for all those snowmobile rides is stored or at what cost. Still, there are more examples of old world economy than of modern extravagances. "Happy People: A Year in the Taiga" is exotic and educational, a marvel of modern story-telling about ancient ways -- if you can tolerate Werner Herzog's intrusions.

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