Documentarian Dmitry Vasyukov spent a year in the Siberian taiga—an area one and a half times the size of the continental United States, with no roads or trains traversing it—and cut the footage into a four-hour television series that ran in his native Russia a few years ago. Then Vasyukov’s material was handed over to Werner Herzog; he, his son Rudolph, and editor Joe Bini reduced it to around 90 minutes for Happy People: A Year In The Taiga, a typically Herzog-ian “man against the elements” film, complete with contemplative Herzog narration. Herzog follows Vasyukov’s season-by-season arc, beginning in the spring, when the rivers are still frozen and trappers begin their preparations for the year’s hunt, and continuing on into summer, fall, and winter, when all their planning pays off. But he adds his own musings on what it means to be free and self-reliant, using basic survival skills passed down through generations.
Herzog’s abridgment isn’t always clean. Happy People digresses at times: for a visit from a politician (who sings songs and distributes sacks of wheat); for the reminiscences of a war veteran (who breaks down, mid-anecdote); and for a consideration of the alcoholic indigenous people (who seem less in touch with tradition than the burly Russians). Perhaps these scenes fit better in Vasyukov’s full series. Here, they’re merely suggestive of a larger picture, hinting that there’s more about this forbidding place and its stout inhabitants than Happy People can cover. And while Vasyukov captures some stunning images—of ice breaking up and moving downriver, and of trappers snowmobiling across twisty woodland paths—Happy People isn’t as visually splendid as Herzog’s best.
But Vasyukov and Herzog are united in their fascination with the particulars of how to thrive in some of the harshest conditions on Earth. The hunters in Happy People have a little bit of modern gear, but mostly they get by with hatchets, which they use to build traps, make skis, and carve out canoes. The key is to plan ahead—to set up and stock camps all over the territory while the weather’s still relatively pleasant, so it’s just a matter of following the itinerary year after year, while looking out for bears. The pleasure of Happy People comes from watching these men go about their work, while they explain that the only way to make it in the taiga is to do and take exactly what’s needed, and not get greedy. What comes across clearly is Herzog’s admiration for how methodical they are, something he loves almost as much as he relishes any opportunity to say the word “bearsss.”