Werner Herzog never hesitates to express his point of view on film, especially through the omniscient voiceovers that are the backing track of many of his recent documentaries. In Grizzly Man, he waxed poetic about the cruel and terrifying emptiness of nature’s fury. In Into The Abyss his contempt for the death penalty was on full display. And in Herzog’s new documentary, a collaboration with Russian filmmaker Dmitry Vasyukov called Happy People: A Life in the Taiga, he posits that the Russian trappers who live in an extremely remote part of Siberia are indeed happy as they face extreme hardships of climate and lifestyle.
Happy People came about after Herzog discovered several hours of footage of the Siberian trappers shot by Vasyukov at a friend’s house in Los Angeles. He was immediately taken with the subject matter and proposed to Vasyukov that he would re-edit the footage into one 90-minute documentary with English subtitles and his own inimitable voiceover. The resulting film is a fascinating look at the residents of the tiny village of Bakhtia, on the Yenisei River in central Siberia. Herzog divides the film chronologically into four seasons, showcasing the intimate bond the trappers have with their dogs as they spend months at a time in the frigid, snowy woods in hand-built cabins where they trap sable and other animals to earn a meager living. This is an extremely isolated community, accessible only by boat or helicopter. In the winter, the men, beards dripping icicles, get around on homemade skis and snowmobiles (a rare technological convenience), and in the summer they are enveloped in clouds of voracious mosquitos. The documentary mostly focuses on those of Russian descent, but several minutes of the film deal with the native Siberians, who seem to have suffered the same fate as natives around the colonized world, relegated to menial labor and alcoholism.
The problem with Happy People is Herzog’s assertion that the 300 residents of Bakhtia are, indeed, “happy people.” It’s similar to the fetishizing assumption that native people anywhere are happy living a simpler life, one that is less burdened by the supposed problems of modern civilization. While this may be true to some degree, it is important not to ignore the hardship and strife that come with such living, as well as the common problems that we all have, whether you live in New York City or Bakhtia, Siberia. It’s safe to assume that the trappers are not by definition miserable, but it’s just as presumptuous to take it on faith that they are living some kind of more sublime existence. One can’t help but wonder how they would answer if they were offered an office job and apartment in Moscow, for example. Still, Happy People is an engrossing look at a culture that many viewers have never been exposed to, and as usual, Herzog’s even-paced, accented narration is a joy to listen to.
Director: Werner Herzog/Dmitry Vasyukov
Writers:Rudolph Herzog, Werner Herzog, Dmitry Vasyukov
Release Date: Jan. 25, 2013