Famed documentarian Werner Herzog has built a prolific career via his wild-eyed curiosity, bringing an infectious enthusiasm to otherwise didactic and peculiar topics. Happy People is technically not his film—-this 90-minute version is condensed from Russian director Dmitry Vasyukov‘s four-hour, made-for-TV documentary—-but the indelible narration ensures this intriguing look at professional Syberian fur-trappers is unmistakeably a Herzog Project.
The happiness of the title refers to the joys of independence, a life of self-reliance and adherence to tradition that’s been passed down by fur-trappers’ forefathers. Like some of Herzog’s other subjects, unbridled freedom is given the highest of premiums in a world otherwise consumed with 0’s and 1’s. As the trappers leave one winter, Herzog remarks on their enviable distance from the “bureaucrats” back home (the film’s funniest moment comes when a hack politician, in an effort to win over a near comatose crowd, belts out a tune with the help of comely backup singers). It’s indisputable that these Happy People are the real deal: They make all of their own tools (outside of a concession to the chainsaw), are fiercely loyal to their dogs, and can’t be bothered to wipe away the ice lodged in their formidable beards. As they set their traps throughout territories upwards of 1,000 kilometers, the film provides access into a truly incredible existence that involves hut building, a steady diet of bread husks, and homemade insect repellent.
Yet, for all of Happy People’s undeniablewonderment,its idealization of solitude is itself sobering, with trappers leaving friends and family behind for months on end, left only to bond with their fish-starved puppies. What drives this obsession and dedication remains a mystery—-Love of the work? Lack of opportunity? A sense of inherited responsibility?—-that is further obscured by the distractingly shoddy translation. Perhaps in the case of those who inhabit the Taiga, the why isn’t nearly as important as the how.
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga screens Saturday at 3 p.m. at AFI Silver Theatre, $7-11.