LOS ANGELES, May 14, 2013 – For more than 40 years, Werner Herzog has been directing some of cinema’s most compelling films and documentaries. From “Fitzcarraldo” (1982) which literally entails cast members dragging a ship across a mountain to the award winning “Grizzly Man” (2005) which documents Timothy Treadwell as he spends 13 summers living with bears before ultimately being eaten alive, Herzog has consistently careened the limits in unconventional but beautiful ways.
Herzog’s newly released DVD box set, which features 27 of his films dating back to 1962, and new DVD release of his latest documentary “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” remain faithful to that tradition.
This time Herzog takes us deep into the icy Siberian wilderness to the tiny village of Bakhtia, a village so remote that it can only be accessed by boat or helicopter. Once there we follow a handful of trappers over a typical year as they gather enough food for their community to last through winter.
The grueling work that goes into a standard day of trapping is evident from the outset. To ensure an adequate supply of food, a single trapper must carefully and laboriously handcraft somewhere around 1000 different animal traps over the span of just a few months. And because very few modern tools exist in the village, everything must be whittled and carved from scratch out of wood.
Also prominent throughout the film are the beautiful dogs the trappers rely on and meticulously train from birth to compliment the hunting process. As the film progresses we become familiar with and grow fond of a number of the dogs, but ultimately come to understand that while dogs may be pets in our part of the world, in this part of the world they’re tools and must work every bit as hard as the trappers, often harder.
One of the more disheartening moments comes as a trapper vividly recounts his dog being killed in front of him by a bear. However, in a world where giant bears roam freely and the temperature routinely falls below zero, it isn’t a tragedy so much as it’s just life in a cruel and unforgiving environment.
One of Herzog’s greatest strengths as a filmmaker is, and always has been, his ability to examine people and places beyond the surface and unearth captivating backstories (see Herzog’s “The White Diamond”).
In “Happy People,” Herzog subtly explores the seemingly irreversible erosion of culture the village wrestles with. Many of the villagers are alcoholics and unemployed. Some blame “the Russians,” others blame themselves. In either case, only a handful of villagers are old enough to properly recall their culture’s traditions and only a handful of youth exist in which to properly pass those traditions along.
Midway through the film, a politician actually shows up on a boat, sings over a microphone, and tosses a bag of wheat overboard in hopes the village will vote for him. The village, though, which hasn’t seen an elected official in years, is completely disenchanted (funny how universal the art of politics really is).
Perhaps the most powerful scene takes shape near the end of the film as we track a dog loyally running behind its master who is driving a snowmobile. The dog runs behind its master for almost two days nonstop in the snow without food and water until the two finally arrive home to their village after a season of hunting deep in the Taiga.
Those looking for a 100 million blockbuster like “Transformers” will likely find nothing interesting about “Happy People.” Herzog has never been interested in making big Hollywood blockbusters, nor do his films always have the best sound and picture quality.
Herzog is, however, one of the most respected documentary filmmakers in the business and there’s a reason why—he tells captivating stories. For those that value substantive storytelling or have a natural curiosity about other parts of the world, “Happy People” offers a rare, fascinating look at one of the world’s most isolated cultures.
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