Happy People: A Year in the Taiga tells the story of the village of Bakhtia, on the river Yenisei, in the Siberian Taiga. It mainly centres on a year in the life of one hunter (trapper) and how he manages to survive and bring in money throughout the year for his family.
Directed by Dmitry Vasyukov and written by Werner Herzog and son Rudolph Herzog, this is a straightforward documentary, but so effectively shows the lives of these simple people. The style of film making and subjects being filmed go hand in hand and is great at showing us the lives of these truly stoic people.
The narration starts in spring and takes the viewer on a journey through all of the seasons and how the trappers have adapted to each time of year. We follow one trapper, who is leaving the village, of around 300 inhabitants, to head into the wilderness to set up traps and base camps for the following winter. He takes all his equipment with him and what he doesn’t have to hand, he will have to make over the coming months. The only company he has is his hunting dog, which helps with catching some of the smaller animals and I’m sure is also there to stop the hunters from going insane on their own.
Some of the scenery and images we see are quite superb, most notably when the frozen river Yenisei starts to thaw and we’re presented with huge sheets of ice starting to flow down river. Herzog’s, sometimes quirky, narration really adds something to the sub-zero landscapes as the viewer is taken on a journey with the hunter.
The amazing thing that struck me about these indigenous people is that they never complain about their situation. This is the way they were brought up and this is the way it will be for the rest of their lives. A few sections that showed this is when the trapper was exclaiming that it was quite warm out…at -30 degrees C. Also, during the summer months, they are greeted with swarms of mosquitoes, but never once get annoyed about it. They just cover themselves in a homemade tar solution as a deterrent and carry on working.
Nothing seems to bother them, or at least on the surface, as when one of the villagers’ houses burnt down, they just get on with it and pack up what they can. A tree falls on the trappers’ hut, but he isn’t visibly upset about this, he just gets to work on repairing it because he is the only person who can.
It is so interesting watching the villagers make their own tools, skis and canoes, but there is a certain sadness that goes along with it, in the fact that the gentleman making the canoe was the last remaining expert boat builder and had no one to pass the skill on to. The traditions of the village seem to be coming to an end and the younger generation aren’t as willing to learn the old ways. Some modern tools are already being used by the people, like guns, chainsaws and skidoos, but these are all for very practical reasons.
Although Herzog didn’t direct this piece, he is a great documentary maker and adding his name to this will do wonders for Vasyukov’s film. Herzog is very adept at documenting things people haven’t seen before, take Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Encounters at the End of the World for two great examples and with twenty plus documentaries under his belt; Herzog is no stranger to this genre.
You can see why this film is called Happy People, as they lead a simple life and seem happy for it. If they’re faced with a problem, they bite the bullet and sort it out and are in now way weighed down by the commercialism of a modern life.
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga will be released on DVD by Second Sight Films on 28th November 2011.
DIRECTOR: DMITRY VASYUKOV
WRITER: WERNER HERZOG, RUDOLPH HERZOG
STARS: WERNER HERZOG (VOICEOVER)
RUNTIME: 94 MINS APPROX