‘Happy People: A Year in the Taiga’ movie review


An image of the Siberian landscape in “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga.” (Image courtesy of Music Box Films)
February 21, 2013

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” contains beautiful footage. Set in the Siberian wilderness known as the Taiga, the documentary by Werner Herzog (“Grizzly Man”) and Dmitry Vasyukov at times just stares, slack-jawed, at the landscape, which is covered in deep snow and a thick ice crust for many months of the year.

If you come into the movie with the February blues, it’s not likely to change your mood. But if, as Herzog says in his narration, you’re able to appreciate “the beauty of space, cold and silence,” the film is a jaw-dropper.

But there’s more than meets the eye here.

Like a National Geographic travelogue, the film is superficially structured around the 12-month cycle of life in Bakhta, a remote village along the Yenisei River of about 300 people, most of whom appear to be ethnic Russians, with a few native Ket peoples (shown only in a few short interviews).

Herzog and Vasyukov’s main tour guide is Gennady Soloviev, a philosophically inclined Russian trapper of sables who spends much of the film demonstrating how to make skis, build traps and otherwise survive in temperatures of 50 below. The work of a trapper is a solitary trade, leaving Soloviev, for much of the winter, with no company other than his dog.

Fishing for pike, harvesting vegetables grown fat in the summer’s 20 hours of daylight, rhythms defined by the freezing and unfreezing of the river — these are what define life in Bakhta. But as the title “Happy People” suggests, the filmmakers are less interested in cultural anthropology than in something deeper and more difficult to get at.

This is, at its root, a film about what it means to be happy, even in a place where a chainsaw and snowmobile are almost the only concessions to modern technology.

As Herzog and Vasyukov present it, happiness is a state of mind having little to do with material things or physical comfort.

Their fur-hatted main subject and his comrades certainly have, by Western standards, a very rough life. Hungry bears pose a threat in the fall. Hunting cabins collapse under the weight of snow and fallen trees in the winter. Warmer weather brings an infestation of mosquitoes, which only a sticky, homemade birch-bark tar will repel.

It’s a dirty and difficult life, by all appearances.

But yes, Soloviev and many of the villagers seem to be preternaturally, almost perversely, happy. This lends credence to what at times can come across as an oversimplified view of the simple life — a view romanticized by those of us trapped in the rat race, but yearning to chuck it all.

The filmmakers’ argument — that happiness can flourish in the most inhospit­able of places but that you must choose it — is undercut by the appearance of the native Kets, who, like many Native Americans, suffer from high unemployment and alcoholism, thanks to the introduction of Russian vodka.

They decidedly don’t seem happy. And “Happy People’s” decision to skate down the frozen Yenisei without examining their unhappiness more closely leaves a slight chill.

★★

Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains a scene of a hunting dog killing a sable and other scenes of dead animals. In Russian with English subtitles and narration. 90 minutes.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular — and unpopular — culture.
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