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Animals were harmed in the making of Happy People: A Year in the Taiga. Fish, birds, a furry, ferret-y thing that may be a sable—all meet their demise as the camera of Dmitry Vasyukov and Werner Herzog looks on with a this-is-reality! leer in this documentary about how the 300 residents of a Siberian village survive year-round in the wilderness that surrounds them.
Herzog, who narrates in that slow, slightly pompous way of his (which makes it even more egregious when he uses the gramatically incorrect phrase “comprises of”), and Vasyukov, a first-time filmmaker, spend most of the film with a middle-aged-plus trapper/hunter who goes uncredited, but who is reportedly named Gennady Soloviev. This man demonstrates many of the skills necessary for this lifestyle, from setting homemade traps to making his own skis. (Dude’s good with an ax.) He describes the characteristics of a good hunting dog (calling one who doesn’t care to do it “a freeloader”) and, in a fleeting but entertaining moment, mocks Survivor. (“Me, I was really struggling for dear life.”)
Happy People starts in spring and, naturally, ends in winter, highlighting the struggles of each season—and though the area allegedly has four, snow and cold dominate the year. You’d think that expansive shots of a wintery forest would sparkle on camera; instead, the cinematography is rather underwhelming, with scenes sometimes looking as though the lens were covered in sludgewater. A few underwater shots, with giant fish glaring at their filmers, are quite spectacular, though.
The most impressive achievement of Happy People is an obvious one, allowing us to witness a world and rugged way of living that few get to see in person. (And you thought stocking up on groceries before an area “snow event” tests your patience.) The doc, true to its title, shows a population that’s generally amiable despite harsh conditions, while you’ll get cold just watching them. Our protagonist is shown returning from the wildnerness to his family to celebrate Christmas, but it’s only a few days before he and other men head back to hunt. “This is the life they love,” Herzog intones.