Werner Herzog is passionate about those living on the edge of unexplored terrains. From his early, fictional films like “Fitzcarraldo” to his most recent documentaries “Grizzly Man,” “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” and now the stunning, “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga,” Herzog presents to film audiences locales few have seen, and inhabitants few have met.
The natives of “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” are comprised of Russians and Kets (Russian natives of the Siberian North) in the small village of Bakhta in the Siberian Taiga (population 300). The Taiga region is 1.5 times larger than the United States and can only be reached by helicopter or boat. Primarily fishermen and trappers, mostly of sable, these people live off the frozen land in a self-reliant manner.
The film focuses mainly on three trappers, Ket Nikolay Nikiforovitch Siniaev, Russian Gennady Soloviev, and even a family member of acclaimed filmmaker, Andrey Tarkovskiy, and their dogs (who also serve as companions and providers) over four Siberian seasons.
We meet the trappers in spring, in remote outposts of the wilderness along the Yenisei river of Siberia, which at first is frozen over, but soon thaws. The men collect their last animal trappings, store their gear for the summer, and make preparations to head back to the village via boat.
Trappers show off their craftsman skills through their intricate traps, or even creating next year’s skis by downing, a tree, carefully splitting off sections with the all-important wedge, and then bending and treating the wood over flames. Regarding his skills, the Russian hunter, Gennady Soloviev remarks that you can take anything away from a man including “wealth, health and suchlike, but you can’t take away his craftsman skills.”
This sentiment will ring true throughout the film, as we see the trappers and even the villagers showcase fine skills in carving canoes, making skis, collecting pine nuts, fishing with nets, growing crops (the summer days are long and produce grows fast), and even making homemade bug repellent. A particularly powerful scene occurs in the early summer when the mosquitos are out in full force. We’re not talking about a few hungry pests, but hundreds, even thousands. The buzzing is so loud, that it overtakes the soundtrack. Humans and dogs are covered with the bugs; dogs’ faces bleed from being bitten so much.
Interesting is how “Happy People” crossed Herzog’s path. In the film’s production notes, Herzog explains that he visited a friend who was watching this amazing four-hour Russian documentary about the Russian hunters in the Siberian Taiga. He was amazed by the films, and called the filmmaker, Dmitry Vasyukov (who is co-director of this film) and asked if would consider working with Herzog to reshape these four-hours to a 90-minute version. Vasyukov jumped at the opportunity.
Along with the fascinating glimpse into this little-scene region, is the sheer beauty of the country, mixed with the months of complete isolation these skilled hunters must endure. Yet, it’s apparent that these men would have it no other way. Like Herzog, their passion for their trade, their trapping skills, their family, and even their dogs, runs strong.
“Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” plays exclusively for one week at the Los Angeles Nuart Theatre beginning February 15.
The film is 94 minutes and unrated.