directors Dmitry Vasyukov, Werner Herzog
I like Werner Herzog as well as anybody. He seems like a great guy to have dinner with. He’s made great films in both narrative and non-fiction and continues to knock movies out right and left on any number of interesting subjects. And whether the films are great or not, he manages to inject his own generous humanism to everything, often in his own gentle Germanic voiceovers.
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga was recommended to me by more than one person. It’s about a small village in a very isolated part of Siberia, on the edge of the massive wilderness of the Taiga, people utterly cut off from everything else much of the year. In particular, it focuses on the trappers who make their lives there, following them through an entire year of hard work, craftsmanship, and personal opinions on life and their world.
The film came about because it was originally shot by Dmitry Vasyukov for Russian television in a series of films with a much longer running time. Herzog became fascinated with the content and offered to edit the material for export into a 90 minute or so single documentary, with his own narration. Vasyukov agreed and Herzog had total control after that point.
This might seem sort of weird, but actually, Herzog’s best known documentary Grizzly Man (2005) evolved similarly as Herzog employed tons of footage that was shot by his subject, Timothy Treadwell. For that film, Herzog shot some interviews of his own and added more material, but you can see how the idea of re-editing someone else’s work into something new was a clear opportunity for him.
It’s easy to see inside Herzog’s mind in certain ways. He lays it all out there for you. He tells you what he thinks. You can see his interest in the way that much of the ways and techniques of these people of the Taiga capture his imagination because they are traditional and generally not modern. They live in commune with nature, a very rough and brutal nature so frozen and far away. But that these people are happy and satisfied, this is also his point and focus.
Actually, I think the title isn’t the best. Sure, they are happy. But they’re not that happy. It’s very interesting to watch. It’s usually quite fun to travel along Herzog’s trails around our world.