Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

Posted in movies, reviews at 10:06 pm by danvk

Last fall, I was excited to read about Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov’s new film, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga.

I bought tickets for its one-night premiere at the IFC. Raven and I raced from our dinner to catch the 9 PM show… only to find out that it had been the night before. A tragic mistake for a one-night only show!

I recently found a full copy of the film on YouTube and we watched it. (Pro tip: the volume is a little low in the YouTube video. You can visit saveyoutube.com to download it to your hard drive. Then watch it in a desktop player like VLC with the volume turned up past the max.)

Herzog and Vasyukov glamorize life in the Taiga. The fur trappers’ existence is simple. They have few material possessions which they do not make themselves. A rifle, snowmobile and outboard motor are the lone exceptions. There’s something immensely satisfying about seeing the hunter making skis and a canoe in the fall, then using them in the winter. They are nearly completely cut off from the modern world. The only intrusion it makes into the film is when a Siberian politician visits on a boat, a curiosity to which the villagers pay little regard.

The men live for the winter hunt, and this is clearly the part of their lives which the filmmakers found most interesting. We hear more about their hunting dogs than we do about their wives or children. The only time we see real emotion from a hunter is when he describes watching a bear kill his favorite dog. Less pleasant things are talked of only briefly: the native people have been largely displaced by ethnic Russians, and those who remain are alcoholics. The protagonist of the movie was brought to Bakhta by helicopter thirty years ago to trap for the communist government. They had few supplies. Another man came with him, but he was “not up to the task” of survival.

This is a beautiful film which offers a glimpse into an increasingly rare way of life. Herzog and Vasyukov portray it as simple and remote, but I think is more due to their editing than to the reality of life in Bakhta. What about the women, who never speak in this film? Or the natives? Happy People leaves you respecting the people who live in the Taiga, but wanting to know more about them.