Film Review: Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

Documentary on the life of hunters in Siberia is a welcome antidote for coddled city dwellers who need a reminder that humanity survived before Internet connections.

The smiles of the 300 residents of a remote Siberian town are often hard to see. In the winter, their faces are covered to keep out the cold. In the summer, it’s to keep away the frightening swarms of mosquitoes. That people thrive at all in this place may be enough to warrant the title Happy People: A Year in the Taiga. If you were to plop the average American into this town, it would be safe to say there would be very, very little happiness. Maybe just a particularly deadly season of “Survivor.”

Yet in this remote area of Siberia there exist even-keeled hunters who gruffly endure temperatures of thirty-below-zero, months of solitude in isolated hunting cabins, and the not-so-unusual calamity. If you get mad when your subway is late, imagine coming home after a day of hunting only to find a giant tree has fallen on your cabin, knocking off the chimney. Goodbye, food and shelter.

Happy People follows a few of Siberia’s residents through all four seasons of the tundra. Werner Herzog reassembled and narrated this documentary, which is most remarkable for its subject matter, not its form. Dmitry Vasyukov, who receives a directing credit along with Herzog, originally created four one-hour films out of the footage, each focusing on a different season on the Taiga, the locals’ word for Siberia. The feature documentary version starts in spring and ends in winter. With a harsh winter and short summer, different tasks must be done during different seasons, lending a rhythm to the residents’ lives that’s absent in today’s cities. Firewood is cut during spring, given the summer to dry and cure, and then used through the winter. When the rivers are high after the summer thaw, people can travel and catch fish. In the winter, the rivers turn into frozen highways snowmobiles can zip across.

What’s striking is that the hunters survive not because of their brawn, but their ingenuity. Trees are patiently turned into razor-thin skis, canoes, and traps for sable. Dogs require careful disciplining and screening for temperament. Knowledge is passed from generation to generation, yielding incredibly complex tools. People who today might be robotics engineers or computer programmers existed in the past, and they must have been responsible for the ingenious tools that the Siberian men employ while going about their work. Although the hunters use steel traps to catch sable, their best trap is a traditional one, created using two trees and clever engineering.

Although occasionally a hunter will wax philosophic, offering a few words of wisdom, this is the kind of movie where the biggest insights come from simply observing their actions. The care and attention they put into work. The value of calm in the face of adversity. How to treat one’s dogs. Herzog’s narration elevates their work. Instead of making their endless exertion seem like a grind, it’s a noble fight in the power struggle between man and nature. Herzog’s 2005 documentary Grizzly Man focused on an eccentric activist who disobeyed the laws of nature. Happy People is about what man (and beast) can accomplish if they follow them. Dog owners who pamper their pooches will be shocked to see a dog run a hundred miles in the cold on an empty stomach in one day, and appear to pant no more than if he had just played a game of fetch in the dog park. Herzog makes a traditional way of life appear foreign and awe-inspiring, and for that this documentary will make a nuanced addition to his oeuvre.

More people will likely see this movie on-demand than by trudging to the theatre, but they won’t miss much. The grainy, oddly colored photography is a drawback most noticeable on the big screen, especially in the day and age of high-definition nature shows like “Planet Earth.”