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HAPPY PEOPLE: A YEAR IN THE TAIGA was originally a 4-hour documentary made for Russian Television by filmmaker Dmitry Vasyukov about fur trappers living in a remote part of Siberia. It was reportedly an epic, if fairly routine nature account centering on the lives of the indigenous people of the village of Bakhtia at the river Yenisei in the Siberian Taiga. Vasyukov’s camera followed them over a period of one year and showed how these natives, whose lives revolve around fur trapping, have barely changed over the last centuries. With no interference from, and barely any access to, the civilized world, they have lived their lives according to nothing but their own cultural traditions (and a weakness for Russian Vodka).

Vasyukov’s filmmaking style is simple and matter-of-fact. He follows the natives training their dogs, building their boats and setting their traps, giving the audience a clear sense of what most of us would consider to be a grim way of life. Life his hard there just as it was for Nanook of the North in the first famous nature documentary almost one hundred years ago. Hunting, fishing, harvesting vegetables — these daily routines, affected only by the cycles of nature, are what define life in Bakhta. The only to reach this village is by boat yet the river is frozen throughout much of the year. Hungry bears pose a threat (shades of Werner Herzog’s GRIZZLY MAN), huts collapse under the weight of snow or are crushed by falling trees, and warm weather brings an army of mosquitos. Vasyukov clearly admires these people – much of what he shows is simply men doing what they need to in order to survive (there are women in Bakhtia but they barely shown and never speak). It’s fascinating to watch the film’s nominal main subject, a lean, bearded fellow named Gennady use a hatchet to carve himself a pair of skis from a log. We’re also shown the skill of ice fishing, the making of mosquito repellent out of sap and constructing sable traps that will be effective in temperatures of 50 below zero.

HAPPY PEOPLE: A YEAR IN THE TAIGA is fascinating stuff and visually stunning but the style of the film was fairly conventional until Werner Herzog got ahold of it. The great German director whittled it down to 94 minutes and recorded his own eccentric philosophical narration. The film is elevated from travelogue to entertainment by Herzog’s participation. It’s his spirited yet deadpan narration, occasionally bordering on the absurd, that keeps the film from being dry. “This is the time when big ships show up”, “It’s gardening season. A time when buildings are fixed and manure is spread”, “The clouds carry rain that falls for weeks and this is important for the hunters”. Okay, maybe it doesn’t sound like so much fun when I type it out but trust me, Herzog’s droll understatements spoken in his unmistakable accent keep the film lively. The native’s voice-overs are at times awkward, the digital photography is muddy in some sequences, and I’m glad I didn’t have to sit through a 4-hour version, but HAPPY PEOPLE: A YEAR IN THE TAIGA is an engrossing documentary and I recommend it.

4 of 5 Stars

HAPPY PEOPLE: A YEAR IN THE TAIGA opens in St. Louis today, March 8 at Landmark’s Tivoli Theater


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