Happy People: A Year in the Taiga – Movie Review

A cautionary tale of humans adjusting to their environment, instead of attempting to make the environment adjust to them.

Wild and crazy Werner Herzog is at it again, this time in the frozen silence of the greatest wilderness in the world, the endless forests of Siberia. The setting is, specifically, the village of Bakhtia at the river Yenisei in the Siberian Taiga. Do not let it worry you; nobody else knows where it is, either. The point is that it is a long way away from anything, or anybody, other than the residents. There is no phone, running water or medical aid. The people rely on each other for help, when they need it. Most of all, they rely on their knowledge, and their respect, of the natural environment. There is no question about who is in charge, here. As one of the trappers recounts, he barely made it through his first year, but he learned quickly. The ability to not make the same mistakes twice can spell the difference between life and death.

The only access to the area is by helicopter or boat, and the boat only works when the river is thawed, perhaps a few months out of the year. The film is about the people who live in the region, year around. They have a life that is both complicated and simple at the same time. The simple part is that if you stay warm and eat, you survive. The complicated part is that Mother Nature teaches harsh lessons, and she usually delivers the punishment before teaching the lesson.

Most of the residents who make up the cast of the film are trappers. They combine an easy ruthlessness with a visceral defense of the natural environment. Although they use leg traps and other means that might be labeled “inhumane,” they know the rhythms of the animals as they know the sunrise and sunset. For example, although there is some poaching, the resident trappers would never think of trapping in the wrong season, which results in taking pregnant female animals. One assumes that poachers do not last long. The long arm of the law here is simply that one does not survive without help from, and teamwork with, friends.

The cinematography is spectacular, covering the setting and the people over a period of a year. The ninety minute run time was edited by Herzog from the original four hour movie by Dmitry Vasyukov. The ninety minute version is long enough, at least for Westerners. In addition to the editing and recutting, Herzog provides his own narration, which is getting more distinctly “Werner” with every film. His think accent and clipped, dry descriptions border on the hilarious at times.

The scenery is beautiful, of course. The winter shots are carefully selected to express the fearsome isolation and extreme cold of the region. In the winter, the frozen river is absolutely endless. When is thaws, the might of the mass of ice would crush any man-made vessel in its way. When the water flows, it flows fast. Boats have to be hauled through rapids by hand, in some places. The rocky shallows do not always allow the use of motors. The photography is intricately planned, executed and edited to show these marvelous contrasts.

Each trapper covers thousands of square kilometers with no shelter other than small huts along the way. The huts are the frequent targets of black bears, who are the arch enemies of the trappers. Even though the bears know there is no food in the huts (the trappers keep the huts surgically clean of anything that attracts bears), they will invade them anyway and destroy everything inside, just looking.

The result is that the trappers must be ready to rebuild the hut and get a fire going at the end of a hard day, or face a lethal night with temperatures frequently around fifty degrees F. below zero. A good preparation for seeing this film is to read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” just to ensure the proper degree of respect for the situation. In spite of the potentially deadly incursions wrought by the bears, the men seem to accept them for what they are, and acknowledge their place in the scheme of things. There is no mention of attempting to kill the bears, in the manner of the wolf extinctions that were conducted in parts of the Western World.

In contrast to Herzog’s fascinating “Grizzly Man,” this is a story of deep respect for the environment and people who have adjusted to it, without trying to master it. As such, they live a life that is demanding but offers a sense of belonging and integration that the urbanized world will never know.

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Directed by: Dmitry Vasyukov and Werner Herzog
Written by: Rudolph Herzog, Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov
Featuring Narration by Werner Herzog
Release Date: February 25, 2013
MPAA: Not Rated
Run Time: 90 minutes
Country: Germany
Language: English / Russian
Color: Color