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Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

Posted by martinteller on October 3, 2013

Werner Herzog happened upon four hours of documentary footage by Dmitry Vasyukov, concentrating on fur trappers in the wilds of Siberia.  Intrigued, he got in contact with Vasyukov and was given permission to recut the footage into a 90-minute movie, adding new score and his own distinctive narration.  The film focuses on three trappers — Gannady, Mikhail and Anatoly — over the course of four seasons.  These men rely largely on centuries-old techniques to catch their prey and survive in the harsh conditions.

This is a perfectly fine documentary, with a lot of intimate access to a remote culture.  But it feels like a rather dispassionate effort from Herzog, which I suppose is understandable given his remove from the source footage.  Unlike Grizzly Man, he does not inject much of his own personality into the proceedings, and there isn’t much of his usual fascination with the subject matter, his reaching for “ecstatic truth”, or his dry wit.  It comes off like a commissioned project rather than a personal one.

Still, the material is never dull.  These are truly rugged individuals, living without access to easy supplies, improvising solutions in the wilderness.  I couldn’t help wishing for more highlights, those magic Herzog moments… but one can sense his particular interest in the dogs and the men’s relationships to them.  The animals are trained and bred to fill very specific roles, and are swapped out until the right ones are found… but despite this utilitarian approach to them, they are also true companions who the men are deeply bonded to.

I feel no hesitation in calling this “minor Herzog”, but it’s still worth a look for fans of the director and his take on individuals living in the margins.  Rating: Good (72)


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