DVD Review: Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga DVDSTUDIO: Music Box | DIRECTOR: Werner Herzog, Dmitry Vasyukov
DVD RELEASE DATE: 4/23/2013 | PRICE: DVD $ 29.95
BONUSES: Werner Herzog intro, documentary, segment from Vasyukov’s original film, more
SPECS: NR | 90 min. | Documentary | 1.78:1 widescreen | Dolby Digital 5.1 | English and Russian with English subtitles and narration

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

 

Let’s cut to the chase; Werner Herzog’s (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) new documentary, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga is a great film. It is classically Herzogian in scope and theme, yet fresh and fascinating in execution, most likely because of the unique way it came about.

The film is actually a cut-down version of a four-hour-long Russian television documentary by Dmitry Vasyukov, framed with Herzog’s patented quirky narration. While it’s tempting to view the project as a lazy effort by Werner to let some other guy do the hard work (filming Siberian fur trappers for a year in sub-zero temperatures) and then simply adding his dry, broken-English commentary (bordering on pure irony) the fact is, the film is just too damn good to dismiss.

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga movie sceneAs we follow the lives of 300 inhabitants living in a tiny Siberian village named Bakhta over the course of four seasons (three of which might as well be winter), Vasyukov’s videography captures the most basic, but beautiful, aspects to their survival: building skis, fishing for pike, constructing traps. There’s almost no information available about the original documentary, but this was no amateur production. The film employs amazing underwater shots (under a sheet of ice, no less) crane shots, aerial shots, and lots of carefully-choreographed b-roll to create an intimate look at the solitary lives of men in the middle of nowhere. Though Herzog’s cut clocks in at 94 minutes, I could have sat through the original four hours without a hitch, immersed in the silent world these trappers occupy.

But that’s only half the story; Herzog provides a narrative context that elevates it from mere verité documentation to an existential statement. The territory is one Herzog has visited often in his films: the individual’s single-minded struggle for fulfillment. But unlike his beloved Fitzcarraldo, these men are not battling nature but are rather in tune with it- hence the film’s title. You might think Herzog’s being ironic calling the film Happy People, as their lives constantly battle nature in all of its forms, not to mention being completely isolated for months at a time- but this is Werner at his most sincere, holding the lives of these men as an ideal, completely at odds with modern society yet in harmony with life itself.

It’s possible that the original film portrayed its characters in a vastly different light- after all, Herzog’s narration is unabashedly colorful even when the footage seems otherwise- but that’s why we love him so. He glosses over many aspects of the town’s life in order to make his point, but that’s his prerogative. While not everyone will relate to such methods, Happy People is an important film if only as a rejection of everything modern man has constructed; it is a reminder that, right now, there are people living without iPods or HDTV who are nevertheless much happier than you will ever be. If art can be judged by how well it conveys the artists’ unique world-view, Happy People takes a gold medal.

The DVD includes a new introduction by Herzog, a segment fom Vasyukov’s original film, as well as another documentary about Spring in West Siberia.

 

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About Memo

Memo Salazar attempts many things and accomplishes few. His big three are making films, music, and comics, but he'll throw photography, graphic design and film criticism into the ring for good measure. He'll even make you a hand-painted t-shirt if you ask nicely. You can track his activity here when there's nothing else to do at work.